The new universal software being used to reserve Net names sometimes goes on the blink, according to several registrars, which blocks transactions and prevents consumers from knowing whether a particular domain name is available. For customers, that could mean losing out on a long-sought-after name or paying for a domain only to find out later that it belongs to someone else.
"In the past week I registered a bunch of names for customers and later found that four were already taken," said Bernard Sonnenschein, a consultant with WhataDomain in New York. "At first [the registration system] told me the names 'might be available'; then it turned out they weren't. I had to go back to my customers and break the bad news. They were not happy."
This scenario stems from a new shared registration system (SRS) that was put in place as part of an ongoing plan to phase out domain name registrar Network Solutions' (NSI) exclusive government contract for registering names ending in ".com," ".org" and ".net."
The White House-appointed Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)--which oversees the Net's core technical functions--has accredited almost 100 companies, including America Online, to compete with NSI. By hooking into the SRS, competitors can claim names for clients and enable the addresses to show up live on the Net.
ICANN is well aware that the SRS, which was tested for seven months, has gone down on several occasions for unknown amounts of time.
"It's not a very good thing if the system is not up," said ICANN president Michael Roberts. "But this is a system that is not yet completely sorted out. I think the message here is: expect glitches."
Roberts added, however, that the system is not at all a failure. "My general impression is that NSI had their rocky moments, but as a test, [the registry] was successful."
As part of an existing operating agreement with the U.S. government and ICANN, NSI can compete as a registrar. However, the company also is responsible for maintaining the domain name system's registry, which serves as the master database for all Net addresses.
After the test period ended in November, the system went down once for a short while, said Brian O'Shaughnessy, an NSI spokesman. But if the SRS goes down, it also stifles NSI's registrations, he added, meaning that the company can't go through monkey wrenches in the system to disadvantage competitors.
"Everybody enters the system equally; if it goes down for Register.com or anyone else, it goes down for us," O'Shaughnessy said. "Also, [the problem] is not always going be on the side of SRS; it could be on the side of the registrar.
"There haven't been any major complaints from the registrars. The system has been acting adequately over the past few months and adding hundreds of thousands of new names," he added.
Still, some consumers who have been frantically trying to register domains say that just a few minutes of inaccessibility can prove disastrous because there's such fierce competition to snatch up catchy-sounding names.
When the master database is down, registrars are still obligated to take orders in the event that another person is trying for the same name through another company, said Shonna Keogan, a spokeswoman for Register.com.
"When the SRS goes down, we alert our customers that the name might be available, and we take down their information--including the credit card number--so we can process it right away when it comes back up," she said.
As a fallback, registrars can look to another database called the Whois, which is compiled by NSI and shows which names have been registered. But the Whois is only updated two times a day to reflect all registrars' Net name sales, so when users rely on that tool, they may try to register a name that isn't available.
NSI said there haven't been any cases when a name has technically been registered twice, however, because when the SRS does come back up, it alerts users who have tried to register a domain name whether it has already been taken.
Registrars say they are trying to learn how to keep serving customers when glitches occur.
"There are some isolated incidents where it might seem that a domain is available and it's not, but everybody is still trying to get used to the new system," said Jeff Field, founder of registrar NameSecure.
Because of several registrar complaints at the ICANN board meeting last month, NSI signed contracts with ICANN and the Commerce Department that stated it would set up a registry service agreement with other registrars. The details still need to be hammered out, however, and no deadline was set.
News.com's Courtney Macavinta contributed to this report.