February 18, 1999 1:05 PM PST

Domain speculation crackdown draws fire

Network Solutions is making moves to curb system abuses by ".com speculators," but a number of domain name registrants say that the changes are anti-competitive.

As reported earlier, Network Solutions (NSI), the government-appointed domain name registry, suffered a major backlog in processing orders last month, which it blamed on an unprecedented number of requests for domain names that are "on hold" but not necessarily owned. So-called speculators in the domain name game hope that by automatically requesting a popular site every few seconds, there is a better chance of obtaining a potentially lucrative domain name once it becomes available. A name can be put on hold for up to 60 days.

Through a series of changes to its system, NSI says it is now trying to take tools away from speculators.

Tomorrow, NSI plans to invalidate more than 500 passwords that people used to open its top-level domain (TLD) "zone" files, which list a domain name and its corresponding string of numbers that identify a computer on the Net. The zone files have been used to build services to track when a domain name is free to register.

Most people will no longer have access to the root "zone" files, unless they sign a licensing agreement stating they will not use the files for speculation. NSI already has approved more than 104 applications for the new, free passwords, and the majority of the recipients are system administrators who can use the data to speed a network's performance.

The new policy also follows NSI's recent decision to alter its public WHOIS database so that it no longer lists when a domain name was originally registered or whether the address has been temporarily suspended.

"It's one step in the process to help alleviate speculators," NSI spokesman Chris Clough said.

But the change has outraged some small businesses and individuals, who were notified two weeks ago that their passwords would expire.

Eric Woodward, founder of MyInternet.com, says he has retained an attorney and plans to file a lawsuit this month alleging that NSI's zone file policy helps extend its monopoly by limiting access. Woodward manages domains for customers through his MyDomain service and plans to soon launch MyMonitor, an automated system that allows his clients to monitor "on hold" and "active" domains. MyMonitor depends on access to the zone files, he says.

Woodward says that it cost him about $60,000 to develop MyMonitor and that he has access the root zones files for more than three years under an implicit contract. His January application and personal appeals for access to the root files were rejected by NSI.

"They are preventing us from building the most sophisticated registrar on the Net," he said today. "As of tomorrow, we will no longer able to operate the MyMonitor beta, and it can not be released. We view this decision as a roadblock to competing."

NSI is losing its exclusive government contract next year. By April of this year, the company could see the first signs of real competition when five other registrars will get the green light to tap directly into the ".com" registration server. The new players will be selected by an international nonprofit corporation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which won the government's approval to oversee the technical underpinnings of the Net address system.

See Don Telage Newsmaker NSI's potential competitors say its campaign against speculators is misguided and will effectively give itself an edge when more companies enter the market.

"They are punishing the Net community because they can't manage their business and because some people are abusing their network," Woodward added.

For example, critics of the plan say future domain name registrants may be inclined to turn to Network Solution's Worldnic, over the competition, in hopes that they will get a jump on a certain name. After all, Network Solutions has access to the zone files and the WHOIS field that reveals whether a name is on hold.

"Network Solutions has the ownership of the whole system--by cutting off the zone files they are overstepping their bounds," said Russ Smith, who owns more than 100 domain names, such as "Pinnochio.com" or "Valentines-Day.net," and runs Consumer.net, a online consumer information site.

"Domain registration is not first come, first serve--it's only that way for people who know the trick," added Smith, whose application for a zone password also was rejected. "They should allow these domains to be released in a lottery."

Yesterday, Smith asked the Commerce Department, which now manages the government's agreement with NSI, to open the zone file to all interested parties. A Commerce Department spokesperson was not available to comment on the issue.

"NSI [says] that this file was not a U.S. government database," Smith stated in his letter "However, this statement is inconsistent with the cooperative agreement between NSI and Commerce [which] clearly indicates in Article 1 that the services provided by NSI are on behalf of the U.S. government."

NSI, for its part, maintains that its future competitors will have access to the zone files.

"NSI's registry has to provide equal access to accredited and licensed registrars, so the zone file will be accessible to them under our agreements," Clough said.

 

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