VeriSign calls halt to .com detours

The registrar plans to shut down its controversial Site Finder service, which redirects mistyped and misspelled URL requests to its own site, after ICANN orders a probe.

Robert Lemos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Robert Lemos
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Robert Lemos
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VeriSign, the administrator of the .com and .net domains, made plans to shut down its new Site Finder service Friday, after the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ordered the company to undo controversial changes.

In a letter sent to VeriSign on Friday, ICANN CEO Paul Twomey told the domain name registrar that it had until 6 p.m. PDT Saturday to comply with a request to take down the Site Finder service. ICANN is the nonprofit organization responsible for administering Internet addresses.


What's new:
A threat from ICANN prompts VeriSign to shut down its controversial Site Finder service.

Bottom line:
Critics said the service allowed VeriSign--and its subsidiary, the registrar Network Solutions--undue influence over registrations in the .com and .net domains. Internet service providers also complained that it made the Internet more complex.

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Site Finder, introduced Sept. 15, includes a "wildcard" feature that redirects all misspelled or unassigned .com and .net domain names to a search page owned by VeriSign. Before that, requests for nonexistent, reserved or inactive domain names would generate an error message.

"Without so much as a hearing, ICANN today formally asked us to shut down the Site Finder service," Russell Lewis, executive vice president of VeriSign's Naming and Directory Services Group, said in a statement. "We will accede to the request while we explore all of our options." As of 3:30 p.m. PDT Friday, the site was still up.

VeriSign administers the main database of who owns which names in the .com and .net top-level domains. By adding a wildcard--a domain name system (DNS) entry that catches any request that doesn't match an address in the database--VeriSign extended its control to unregistered domains.

Three companies that compete with VeriSign subsidiary Network Solutions have filed lawsuits, claiming the move is an unfair business practice.

In addition, at least seven organizations have criticized VeriSign's wildcard change, including the Internet Society, the Public Interest Registry and several engineering groups within ICANN. These groups say the change causes havoc with applications such as spam filters and mail servers that rely on an Internet server returning an error message when a domain does not exist.

"Based on the information currently available to us, it appears that these changes have had a substantial adverse effect on the core operation of the DNS, on the stability of the Internet and on the relevant domains," Twomey wrote in the ICANN letter. He concluded: "The only prudent course of action consistent with ICANN's coordination mission is to insist that VeriSign suspend these changes pending further evaluation and study."

Site Finder Web pages generated when Web users reach inactive domains offer a search box and a "Did You Mean ?" listing of similar domain names to users who mistyped a domain name. The page also has a listing of popular categories that might be related to a specific search request. VeriSign stated that Internet users had visited the page more than 40 million times in the last three weeks.

"The service has been well received by millions of Internet users who appreciate getting navigation tools as opposed to the 'dead end' of an error message," VeriSign's Lewis said in the statement.

However, competitors claim that the site allows VeriSign--and its Network Solutions registrar subsidiary--undue influence over registrations in the .com and .net domains. Internet service providers have criticized the service as making the Internet more complex.

On Sept. 21, ICANN asked VeriSign to voluntarily remove the service while the group's engineering teams studied the effects of the change, but the company declined to do so. Instead, it created its own technical review board to analyze customers' and competitors' claims. Moreover, VeriSign disputed the technical case, saying the change hadn't provably degraded the Internet.

"During the more than two weeks that Site Finder has been operational, there is no data to indicate that the core operation of the Domain Name System or stability of the Internet has been adversely affected," Lewis said. "ICANN is using anecdotal and isolated issues to attempt to regulate nonregistry services, but in the interests of further working with the technical community, we will temporarily suspend Site Finder."