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ICANN and VeriSign Agree to End Site Finder Suits

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names (ICANN) and registration services provider VeriSign have reached a tentative agreement to end their long-standing lawsuits against each other over how VeriSign resolves non-existent domain names for the .com and .net top-level domains. The agreement must still be approved by ICANN’s board after a period of public comment; you can see both ICANN’s and VeriSign’s announcements of the agreement on their respective Web sites.

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The dispute between VeriSign and ICANN dates back to late 2003, when VeriSign rolled out a new service called Site Finder which altered the way non-existent domains under VeriSign’s purview were resolved. When users typed in or clicked a link pointing to certain sites which didn’t exist, VeriSign programmed its name servers to report the sites did exist. And viola! The unsuspecting surfer sees a Web page with a list of suggested sites the user might have wanted to reach, along with selected sponsored items from VeriSign and its partners.

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To understand the magnitude of the change Site Finder represented, it’s important to note .com and .net are two of the most widely used top-level domains (TLDs). VeriSign’s change wreaked havoc on software which relied on the Internet’s DNS system returning errors for non-existent sites – as the system was designed to do, and had done for decades. Anti-spam systems which checked the veracity of a sender’s domain suddenly approved any nonexistent or faked domain in the .com and .net name spaces. Similarly, providers like Microsoft and AOL who offered custom error pages to their subscribers when a site couldn’t be located suddenly saw those features go dark: all that "junk traffic" was now going to VeriSign. Just to make things more controversial, VeriSign was selling advertising on the Site Finder pages and had revenue sharing agreements with several sites promoted in Site Finder listings. Search providers claimed VeriSign was unilaterally abusing its responsibility as a top-level domain operator to gain unfair competitive advantage. VeriSign claimed it was rolling out an innovative new service.

Software developers and ISPs rapidly began to deploy mechanisms to block traffic to Site Finder, and, after considerable whining, VeriSign bowed to pressure from ICANN and the Internet community to shut down the service. However, VeriSign sued ICANN some months later, saying ICANN’s actions unfairly impeded VeriSign’s ability to develop new revenue sources. ICANN – in the way of most non-profit organizations comprised of committees and procedural requirements – eventually got around to counter-suing.

The new agreement, if approved, would redefine the role of a registry service for the .com top-level domain so that services like Site Finder would require prior ICANN approval before being deployed. VeriSign seems to like the agreement because it would provide "business certainty:" VeriSign wouldn’t have to worry about having the rug yanked out from under any new services approved under the new policy after spending considerable time and money developing some new idea. ICANN, and in turn the larger Internet community, wouldn’t have to worry about registrars making changes to services without sufficient technical evaluation and prior notice. Similar terms were rolled into ICANN’s renewal of VeriSign as the .net registry operator in earlier this year.

The agreement does not provide either party with a monetary settlement, although the new .com Registry Agreement requires VeriSign to make a $1.25 million lump sum payment to ICANN to meet "the costs associated with establishing structures to implement the provisions of this agreement." It seems likely that VeriSign will pass this fee along to registrants and domain resellers as a surcharge on a per-domain basis. So, if you’ve registered .com domains, get ready to pay a little bit more next time you renew.

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Coming Soon, International Governance Issues — This news comes amid unease over ICANN’s role in Internet governance, which will no doubt be a hot topic at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia on 16-Nov-05.


Essentially, ICANN operates at the pleasure of the United States Commerce Department, which retains final policy control over the Internet’s authoritative root servers as a historical artifact of the Internet’s development within U.S.’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. Lately, the Commerce Department’s role isn’t merely a formality: it recently reversed policy and announced it would not consider turning over root server control to an international agency, and abruptly forced ICANN to delay a process of creating a top-level domain which would function as a sort of online red light district.

A number of countries insist Internet governance ought to be handled by an international agency, possibly within the United Nations, rather than by non-elected members of a non-profit organization who ultimately must defer to a department of the U.S. government. The current Bush administration – along with an increasing number of Senators and other U.S. lawmakers – say "no," claiming that the smooth operation of the Internet is crucial to international commerce and, therefore, a matter of U.S. national security.

So, a crisis is brewing which may fragment the Internet. Without some resolution, some countries and regions may set up their own governance bodies and registry services, which could mean some Internet sites wouldn’t be accessible from particular regions, or the same domain name could load different sites in different places. Presumably some peering arrangements would be worked out, but there’s no telling what forms those might take, or how reliable they might be.

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