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VeriSign Feels Heat for SiteFinder

VeriSign is under fire from privacy advocates and a massive lawsuit, which allege the company's new SiteFinder service, redirects mistyped Web and e-mail addresses to a search site operated by the company.

Beyond the scrutiny of the software development community, VeriSign also faces a $100 million anti-trust lawsuit from Popular Enterprises LLC, the Orlando, Fla.-based parent company of search provider Netster.com.

Popular Enterprises says that Verisign is essentially hijacking misspelled and unassigned Web addresses with its new SiteFinder service, just launched this week.

When VeriSign came out with SiteFinder on Monday, privacy advocates said the company was overstepping its bounds by leveraging its role as the leading Web address provider, and trying to create a commercial service out of the unwitting mistaken addresses typed by users.

Popular Enterprises in its lawsuit filed in federal court in Orlando, Fla., alleges Verisign is involved in antitrust violations, unfair competition and violations of the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, asking the court to put a halt to the service.

Verisign is said to be redirecting mistyped IP and e-mail addresses to the SiteFinder site, which contains a "Web bug," an invisible image file served by Overture.com . Overture operates a pay-per-click search engine, the bug it is delivering through SiteFinder is a cookie that is said to not expire for five years.

For privacy advocates, the bigger issue is how are Verisign and Overture are utilizing the information collected, and will they be able to discern particular Internet usage patterns by tracking a users cookie trail?

There is the possibility that personal information could be harvested, and that databases of mistaken Web addresses could be merged and cross-referenced with domain name registries, opening up a treasure trove for data mining.

VeriSign already holds more than two million digital certificates of holders in its database, and the company has access to those customers personal information. But would it be in Verisign's best interest to do anything to breach those customers security, and trust?

VeriSign says the SiteFinder privacy policy only collects data "in aggregate form and solely for the purposes of operating and improving the performance of our SiteFinder." VeriSign goes onto say that Overture serves content for its SiteFinder site and also measures "advertising effectiveness of paid search results."

While some security software companies have already figured out ways to go around the SiteFinder system, while it is presenting for some companies trying to block spam. Overture is reported to have been name in several recent spam complaints.

The Popular Enterprises federal lawsuit against VeriSign says the company not only maintains the master list of all Web addresses, which end in .com and .net but is using that list for unfair advantages in the market.

Popular Enterprises say the SiteFinder service allows VeriSign to monopolize unregistered .com and .net domains, and to profit by redirecting all Internet traffic for these sites to pay-for-placement sites controlled by VeriSign. If they are allowed to operate Sitefinder, VeriSign will now profit from Internet traffic directed to all unregistered domain names, including thousands of domain names that VeriSign has refused to allow the public to register.

The company said Netster's SmartBrowse and other similar services from both AOL Time Warner and Microsoft Corp. .

For its part, Verisign defends its new SiteFinder service says it will not misuse any the information it collects.

But there is widespread outrage with Verisign, on Wednesday The Internet Software Consortium, a non-profit group, said it released new software that enables ISPs to block the SiteFinder service.

"Rather than compete fairly in the search business, VeriSign has used its monopoly to hijack Internet traffic. Imagine the uproar if the D.O.T. suddenly decided to direct all the traffic off the Interstates only to exits with D.O.T. sponsored hotels and restaurants," says William Marquez, president of Popular Enterprises said, in an official statement.

While the federal court decides, whether the Popular Enterprises suit against VeriSign is with merit, or not, there are critics of the company's Netster service. The company is said to have bought up thousands of expired domain names, and redirected them to Netster.com's own commercial search services site.