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Internet

Playing domain name hide-and-seek

The entry of a new player in the registration of the most popular forms of Internet addresses is creating confusion about how to tell whether a given domain name is still available.

The entry of a new player in the registration of the most popular forms of Internet addresses is creating confusion about how to tell whether a given domain name is still available, and if not, who owns it.

Back when Network Solutions was the only game in town, the task of establishing domain ownership involved a simple trip to the company's Whois database, which showed the creation date, contacts, and other information for every domain name ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org."

But now that Register.com has begun selling domains under a shared registration system, NSI's Whois is no longer the authoritative place to find out whether a domain name has been taken.

When inquiring about a domain name sold by Register.com, NSI's database simply displays the message: "No match for [domain name]." The process could become even more complicated within the next few months, when more than three dozen additional domain registrars are scheduled to come online.

To provide information about all domain names, NSI in April established the NSI Registry, which contains a listing of every domain name registered in the ".com," ".net," and ".org" space. The new database does not provide contact information for a domain name, but it does list where the address was registered so the user can get the information from that registrar's Whois page.

NSI competitors are capitalizing on the confusion this causes by including information in their Whois databases on domain names not offered by NSI.

"If you really want to find out who is behind a domain name and get a definite answer right away, you're better off going to Register.com's Whois," said company spokeswoman Shonna Keogan. In addition to Register.com, other services such as GeekTools offer full listings on every domain name regardless of its registrar or extension.

Still, the confusion has sparked a new round of complaints among NSI critics, who say the Herndon, Virginia, company did not do enough to simplify the change or give the public prior notice about how the database would work after Register.com came on board.

"People are registering with Register.com and not getting updated into NSI's Whois," said Paul Garrin, founder of Name.Space, which accused NSI of violating antitrust laws in a 1997 lawsuit that recently was dismissed. "This is causing problems."

Specifically, Garrin said, his company and dozens of others use programs that automatically connect to NSI's Whois to determine whether a domain name is taken. The programs interpret a response that there is no match for a given domain name as meaning that the address is still available. With Register.com offering domain names, that frequently is not the case.

But NSI spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy said the new Whois site was announced in an April 2 press release. As more registrars come online in the coming months, he said, "each of them will maintain their own registration Whois."