Domain name chaos needs measured response

Disputes over domain names are on the rise, as automated cybersquatting takes off. With work, the system's robust enough to cope

Imagine a Wild West town where the street signs can be hired by the year. For that year, the hirer gets to say where they point — but if they don't renew quickly enough, someone else can nip in and swing them around.

Follow the sign to the town library, and you'll end up at the liquor shop — the shopkeeper has more money than the librarian, and has a gang of kids wandering around nabbing old signs and putting up new confusing ones as quickly as they can.

It would be frustrating chaos, and you'd soon be looking for a saner place to live. Yet that's not so far from the way internet domain names are currently managed, with predictable results documented by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Because of low cost and ease of automation, robots scour the registry databases looking for lapses and slamming in registration requests — hence the unpleasantly common experience of following a link to find a page of advertising utterly unconnected to the site you sought.

People and companies do have rights to their own names and can get their URLs back if they go to WIPO — but there's so little downside that the robot herders are happy to lose a few.

There is no easy answer to this, but that doesn't mean abandoning the fight for sanity. To some extent, a market in domains is healthy and useful: it encourages people to invent and invest, but wholesale manipulation ruins the very structures that make the internet work. It also risks damaging basic services — an oversight by Microsoft led to its UK Hotmail domain lapsing into another's arms in 2003. For some companies, such a mishap would be very damaging, possibly fatal.

Some rules might help. A grace period after a lapse would let active users react in time to save the situation, while harming no-one. A ban on automated domain harvesting, while hard to define and police, would encourage the development of saner management and provide some comeback against the worst of the offenders. And a better way of telling domain owners that a domain is due to lapse would be helpful — the automated warning emails currently used are too easy to lose in the spam tsunami.

For now, the onus is on the domain owners to keep their valuables safe. That's no bad discipline for a frontier town, while you're waiting for the sheriff to turn up — and emphasises our responsibilities to work together to find a better way as the internet evolves. Is that a good sign? In the wise words of Abrahams and Zucker, it does the job.

 

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