The issue cropped up about two weeks ago, when Google quietlya service allowing visitors to look up data on domain name owners from public databases--collectively known as Whois--run by registrars worldwide. Although largely unpromoted, the service generated enough traffic to surpass Network Solutions' (NSI's) daily Whois use limits, which aim to stop spammers and other undesirables from harvesting information about its customers.
With NSI blocking most of its Whois queries, Google pulled the feature and information about it from its FAQ after a couple of days, replacing Whois queries with ads from registrars, including NSI.
"This is a public service that we're required to do, but it's been drastically abused" by spammers, said Champion Mitchell, chief executive of Network Solutions, the largest registrar of domains ending in ".com" and ".net". "We're not going to enable people to violate the privacy of our customers easily."
The tussle highlights a growing problem for Google as it seeks to be all things to all people. The company's challenge is to offer visitors helpful new search services without alienating the Internet operators it relies on for advertising or partners that may have different priorities.
Google's try-anything attitude is in the spotlight as the company prepares for an initial public offering, which is widely expected by spring.
In the last two years, Google hasto include services for self-publishing to the Web, advertising sales for large and small sites, and corporate search. More recently, the company has increasingly edged into shortcuts to data such as flight times and phone numbers, for example.
Although Google pulled the Whois feature for now, the company told CNET News.com that it is continuing to explore ways to offer a shortcut for Whois look-ups. "We'd like to enable our users to access Whois information and we are currently evaluating different ways to make that happen," according to a Google representative.
According to NSI's Mitchell, Whois look-ups pose a substantial threat to customers, whose e-mail addresses and phone numbers can easily fall into the wrong hands. In order to thwart abuse, the company has long set a daily cap on the number of times any third-party Web site can query its database. NSI will not specify that number, but Mitchell said that the company places the cap to deter spammers.
NSI started using another stringent antispam tactic last May, which requires people to type in code of five or six letters and numbers before they can access domain-registration data. That hurdle deters spammers that build automated bots to query the database for e-mail addresses repeatedly. Mitchell also said NSI recently started offering a privacy feature, which for about $5 lets domain owners keep their e-mail address confidential.
NSI's use limits apparently froze out Google despite the fact that the two companies are partners. NSI helps Google market its advertising services to new domain name owners, and advertises its own services through Google.
In delivering its Whois shortcut, Google drew on a database managed by Ratite.com, a global Whois look-up site developed by software engineer Gary Moore. Unlike NSI, Ratite.com does not sell domain names. Rather, Moore hopes to make a business out of simplifying Whois look-ups in a fragmented system where hundreds of competing registrars each run their own databases and no central repository exists.
In the few days the service was up and running, Ratite.com exceeded NSI's allotted look-ups within an hour, according to Moore, who estimated that NSI allows a single site to make about 1,000 queries on its Whois database per day. Moore said that NSI did not respond when he tried to discuss the issue.
Moore said he has instituted his own security measures against Whois abuse by blocking the Internet Protocol addresses of anyone who queries the database more than several times a second. He added that he believes spam is partly an excuse for NSI to keep Whois traffic on its own site, where it can market its services.
"Money makes all this stuff work," Moore said. "If I had to guess, Google took it down because of Network Solutions, and Network Solutions has a commercial interest because they sell domain names."
NSI's Mitchell acknowledged that NSI is a Google advertiser and that NSI offers Google's Adwords program to its customers. However, he said that there was no link between that advertising and the closure of Google's Whois look-up service.
He added that NSI will seek to protect its Whois database from spammers and others seeking to mine information, for whatever purpose.
"I don't care who is coming to try to mine that data," he said. "We will make sure we try to stop it."