[Politech] Michael Geist's column on VeriSign's domain name redirection

From: Declan McCullagh (declan@private)
Date: Wed Sep 24 2003 - 07:54:26 PDT

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    Here's News.com's archive on the VeriSign SiteFinder change:
    Date: Mon, 22 Sep 2003 06:49:54 -0400
    To: declan@private
    From: Michael Geist <mgeist@private>
    Subject: The Day Internet Governance Mattered
    Of possible interest to Politech -- my regular Toronto Star Law Bytes 
    column examines the controversy over VeriSign's Site Finder service.  The 
    column argues that there has been a general lack of enthusiasm for Internet 
    governance issues but when it finally mattered - the moment VeriSign hit 
    the switch - the Internet community learned how powerless it has become as 
    ICANN and national governments did little to protect the public interest. 
    While VeriSign may eventually drop the service, the column concludes that 
    the Internet community will look back on the day that Internet governance 
    mattered and remember that they didn't.
    Column at
    http://shorl.com/gavefifukudu [Toronto Star]
    Verisign's tampering shows high cost of apathy
    Internet governance is an issue that relatively few people care much about. 
    For the vast majority of Internet users, the technical and policy details 
    that underlie the Internet matter little so long as their e-mail goes to 
    the correct address and their domain name resolves correctly so that their 
    Web site is accessible.
    While some people become engaged in hot button policy issues - domain name 
    dispute resolution, privacy, and online elections to name three - for the 
    most part policy decisions are largely left to the small cadre of technical 
    and policy wonks who engage in heated online discussions and meet several 
    times a year in a variety of exotic locales around the globe to continue 
    discussions face to face.
    The general lack of enthusiasm for Internet governance has enabled those 
    stakeholders with a direct financial interest, primarily domain name 
    registries and registrars (the companies that sell and register domain 
    names) and the intellectual property community, to seize significant 
    control over the governance structure. Although the initial structure of 
    the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the 
    California-based non-profit company charged with managing the domain name 
    system, envisioned a meaningful role at the board level for individual 
    Internet users, those visions are now little more than a distant memory as 
    the voice of individual users has been steadily marginalized to the point 
    of near silence.
    This gradual transformation has developed with the open acquiescence of 
    governments worldwide. Although many governments, including the Government 
    of Canada, profess to view the Internet as a critical resource, they have 
    been content to leave this resource alone, governed by self-regulation with 
    a bare minimum of intervention.
    Last Monday, at 10:45 a.m., the danger of this laissez faire approach 
    became evident to millions of Internet users. At that moment, VeriSign, the 
    U.S. company that enjoys a monopoly over dot-com and dot-net domain name 
    registration (there are competing registrars who sell domains to the public 
    but they must all buy their domains from VeriSign), flicked a switch and 
    launched a new service called Site Finder.
    Site Finder is designed to deal with a fairly common occurrence for many 
    Internet users - the entry of an incorrect domain name, either because the 
    domain is no longer active or because of a typo. While users are accustomed 
    to receiving an error message when this occurs, VeriSign's Site Finder 
    service now replaces the error page with a VeriSign page that displays 
    advertising and a search tool.
    For VeriSign, this new innovation is potentially very lucrative. It 
    estimates that dot-com and dot-net domains are mistyped 20 million times 
    per day, resulting in an additional 20 million visitors to VeriSign's Web 
    site daily and millions of dollars in additional revenue from advertising 
    and click-through searches.
    For the rest of the Internet, the new service is potentially very damaging. 
    Technical experts have repeatedly warned against tampering with the domain 
    name system in this fashion, suggesting that it could result in significant 
    instability for the network.
    The service has also had an immediate negative impact on fight against 
    spam. Many ISPs use anti-spam tools that rely on the ability to discern 
    between domains that exist and those that do not. Since Site Finder ensures 
    that all domains resolve, even where they do not exist, that spam- fighting 
    mechanism has been rendered inoperable for the moment (VeriSign pledged to 
    develop a fix late last week).
    Domain name owners also feel cheated by the new system. As one domain name 
    owner noted, many would not have opted for a dot-com domain years ago had 
    they known that a system would later be established that would take a user 
    elsewhere if they mistakenly enter a typo on the way to their site.
    Hardest hit, however, are individual Internet users. Twenty million times a 
    day Internet users who inadvertently enter a typo now find themselves 
    subjected to a lengthy VeriSign terms of use contract found on the Site 
    Finder page. That contract includes provisions relating to user privacy 
    that specify that the company has the right to collect statistics - 
    information such as the user's IP address, page views, from which domains 
    users come, and the browser settings installed on users' computers. In 
    fact, Verisign now places a data identifying "cookie" on every user's 
    computer that further assists with data analysis of users' activities.
    Despite the Internet community's near unanimous outcry against the Site 
    Finder service, it quickly learned just how powerless it has become. ICANN, 
    the supposed steward of the domain name system, took until Friday evening 
    to issue a weak statement calling on VeriSign to voluntarily suspend the 
    Site Finder service while it reviewed the matter. National governments, who 
    were witnessing one company tamper with a public resource they had promised 
    to protect, also did nothing, rendered powerless by their years of 
    adherence to a self-regulatory policy that diminishes traditional 
    regulatory oversight. In fact, last week the United States government 
    extended ICANN's mandate over the domain name system for an additional 
    three years, guaranteeing many more years of governmental abdication of 
    leadership responsibility.
    Given the continuing concern over the Site Finder service, it is likely 
    that technical fixes will be developed to override VeriSign's approach. It 
    is also possible that VeriSign will drop its new service, either 
    voluntarily, by order of a court (it was hit with a $100 million lawsuit 
    over the service by a leading search engine late last week) or under 
    compulsion by ICANN.
    Regardless of the eventual outcome, Internet users will look back on the 
    day that Internet governance mattered and remember that they didn't.
    Michael Geist is the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law 
    at the University of Ottawa and technology counsel with the law firm Osler 
    Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. He is on-line at http://www.michaelgeist.ca and 
    http://www.osler.com (mgeist@private).
    Professor Michael A. Geist
    Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law
    University of Ottawa Law School, Common Law Section
    Technology Counsel, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP
    57 Louis Pasteur St., P.O. Box 450, Stn. A, Ottawa, Ontario, K1N 6N5
    Tel: 613-562-5800, x3319     Fax: 613-562-5124
    mgeist@private              http://www.michaelgeist.ca
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