RealTime IT News

Registrars Refute 'Domain Slamming' Charges

Fighting what they say is an increasing level of desperation to keep its customers close to the fold, registrars and Internet service providers (ISPs) responded Friday to VeriSign charges of "domain slamming."

An ever-growing group of ISPs and registrars are lobbying the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to put an end to what, in their opinion, looks like the largest registrar in the world dictating policy for an entire industry and spreading misinformation to keep their monopoly position.

Domain slamming gets its name from the practice by some long-distance telephone companies of switching LD service from one carrier to another without informing or by misinforming the customer.

Addressed to Stuart Lynn, ICANN president and chief executive officer, the letter asks ICANN to take all the facts into consideration before making any ruling on domain name transfers.

"We find VeriSign's accusations which claims actions by ISP/IPPs such as ourselves constitute "domain slamming" to be offensive accusations, which deliberately leave out the full and true facts of the cases in order to justify their anti-competitive positions and stance, and protect their dominant position which they hold only because of their prior monopolistic state. We urge ICANN to reject any suggestion by VeriSign to enforce prohibitive policies on domain transfers, or whom has delegated that decision to their ISP/IPP."

It's a rebuttal to an open letter penned earlier this week by Roger Cochetti, VeriSign senior vice president for policy, where he told Lynn that his company would immediately implement its own standards for authorizing the release of domain names to competitors.

These "interim" measures, which call for the customer to notarize a statement authorizing the release of the domain name, are the result of what Cochetti calls domain slamming, the switch of a domain name from one registrar to the other without the customer's knowledge.

William Walsh, sponsor of the rebuttal letter sent to ICANN and owner of registrar company Userfriendly.com, said the actions by himself and other ISPs/registrars were taken to address the many inaccuracies and "blatant" falsehoods in Cochetti's original letter.

He paints a nightmare picture of the delays and difficulties experienced when he recently tried to switch a customer's domain from VeriSign-owned registrar Network Solutions Inc., to Tucows, a Canadian-based registrar.

Under VeriSign's new anti-slamming measures, customers have five days to complete the authorization process from VeriSign to the gaining registrar, or the transfer is blocked. After getting the request from the gaining registrar, Walsh said, VeriSign is delaying the process by sending the authorization letter to the customer two or three days after the request, many times on a Friday afternoon.

That's hardly enough time, he said, to respond and make it within the five-day deadline, especially if Saturday and Sunday are included in the deadline. And if they don't make the deadline, the customer and ISP/registrar are forced to begin the process anew.

That's costly in the case of many owners who are switching their domain names to a new registrar at the end of their domain name leasing agreement with VeriSign. Many times, their domain expires while trying to get it switched over to a new registrar, forcing them to pay the $35 initial domain registration fee VeriSign charges to reinstate the domain, often to the detriment of the gaining registrar.

"VeriSign's practices are causing legitimate transfer requests to be blocked or take two to three attempts to be processed," Walsh said. "When they are questioned about it, VeriSign's staff blames the other registrar for the problems. Registrants are then under the mistaken impression that it's the fault of the registrar they were trying to transfer to."

The impact of the new policy is affecting registrars everywhere. Tucows reports that in the first week of June, 70 percent of its customer transfer requests were denied. Other registrars report similar numbers, and it looks like it will only get worse unless steps are taken to remedy the situation.

VeriSign critics also point to the flawed assumptions Cochetti made in his letter to ICANN, which says that most domain customers register a domain on their own.

Ross Rader, director of research and innovation at Tucows, says that VeriSign officials are only telling part of the story when it comes to customers and their domain names.

VeriSign runs under the assumption that domain registration is run under a retail model, he said, where people go to the site and register the domain name there. But that's only part of it: the majority of domain name registrations come through service providers, seen by many as the logical source for all Internet-related services.

Doug Wolford, VeriSign mass markets general manager, said the relationship they're worried about is between themselves and the consumer, not with the compeition.

"The legal relationship in the domain business is always between the registrant and the registrar, so if you register a domain name from us and someone wants to change that domain to another registrar, effectively what they are doing is saying, 'We want to change the legal relationship between you and VeriSign," Wolford said. "It's our belief, and it's supported by contracts with ICANN and others, that we should ask you before that contract is broken. There is, even among our community, a fairly limited understanding of the importance of that legal relationship."

Rader and others think that mindset is narrow thinking, especially when the bulk of domain name registrations are handled by the ISP.

"I do not go to AT&T to buy a T-1," Rader said. "I go to my local ISP and they get the bandwidth, they get the IP numbers from ARIN (the American Registry for Internet Numbers) for us, they set up my domain names. We trust their judgment, and if we didn't we'd go to another ISP."

"That's the way people buy infrastructure," Rader continued. "It's ridiculous to assume that everybody in the universe is going to buy a domain retail because of some perceived customer service benefit or pricing benefit. A significant number of people just don't care."

VeriSign points to a series of unpublished surveys conducted last year that show what they say is an alarming number of people who are victims of domain slamming. According to Cochetti, the surveys show that as many as one in three customers were switched to a new registrar without their knowledge, many times from duplicitous registrars.

"While some de minimis level of customer confusion is to be expected (in the transfer)," Cochetti said in his letter, "we were astonished at the extent of the difference between what many registrars asserted customers had expressly authorized, and what the customers actually disclosed to us themselves.

Rader laughs off assertions of VeriSign worries, saying results in the VeriSign-sponsored surveys can hardly be considered impartial.

"They've been talking about this magical report for months now, but despite repeated requests, they've never publicized it, so we don't know what methodology was or the questions they asked," Rader said. "They're parading this thing around like its some conclusive document that's proving all sorts of things. Essentially it's allowing them to speak from an unsupported position. Anything based on the survey, as far as I'm concerned, is spurious and inflammatory."

Wolford said the survey results are the only thing competitors will see, unless ICANN decides to release the results in the future. Officials at the governing body were given the detailed reports last year.

"I think the appropriate party to share (the surveys with) is ICANN," Wolford said. "ICANN is the standards-setting body in the industry and we want them to be the ones to lead the community to a decision that's in the interest of consumers. It's not something that any company should be doing unilaterally, rather its something ICANN can take the lead in. We believe that sharing the information with ICANN is the best way of getting that process tightened up.

ICANN officials were unavailable for comment and haven't gotten back to VeriSign to talk about Cochetti's letter. Wolford expects that is because ICANN will practice due diligence in this matter.

"I think ICANN is viewing this as a matter that requires serious consideration of the whole community," Wolford said. "Our survey was conducted very rigorously by neutral third parties, based on reports from our customers. I think there is definitely a role ICANN can play here in setting a standard procedure that everyone can follow and have confidence in. What we're concerned about is the trust people have in the registrar community, which could be eroded by these slamming events."