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ICANN Panel Pans VeriSign Search Service

By David McGuire
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2004; 5:54 PM

A panel of experts convened by the nonprofit organization that manages the Internet's domain-name system today took aim at the company that controls the popular "dot-com" and "dot-net" domains, issuing a report concluding that a controversial search service designed to make money off Web-browser typos is a threat to the stability of the Internet and should remain offline indefinitely.

The service in question, called Site Finder, was launched by Mountain View, Calif.-based VeriSign Inc. last September. Users who entered nonexistent or inactive Internet addresses in their Web browsers were automatically redirected to the Site Finder page, which featured an Internet search tool supported by advertisers.

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The launch of Site Finder produced an uproar in technology circles last year, with critics charging that it undermined the stability of the massive dot-com and dot-net Internet domains, which VeriSign operates under an agreement with Internet authorities and the U.S. Government.

In addition, Site Finder was a direct assault on companies like Microsoft and America Online that also try to capitalize on requests for nonexistent Internet address. Users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, for example, are currently taken to an MSN search page when they request a bad Web address. But when Site Finder was active, those Microsoft users were instead sent to the VeriSign service, something the company was able to achieve because it controlls the dot-com and dot-net domains at the registry level.

VeriSign shut down Site Finder in October after the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) ordered the company to halt the service while a panel of security experts studied its impact on the Internet's global addressing system. Today that panel said Site Finder should stay mothballed.

Site Finder represents an "approach to using the domain name system is not a good approach," said Steve Crocker, the chair of the ICANN Security and Stability Advisory Committee. "We have absolutely nothing against consumer services on their own; it's just a question of how those services are introduced and whether they upset the apple cart for other services and Internet users."

VeriSign today said the ICANN panel's review process was flawed.

"We're not surprised by the findings, considering key members of the committee had already made up their minds about Site Finder before the hearings began. What we are surprised about is that a full nine months after they began their review, they still haven't provided any data or evidence to back up their claims," said Tom Galvin, vice president of government relations for VeriSign.

When Site Finder was launched, critics said it interfered with the normal functioning of the domain-name system, causing a number of Internet-based systems, including certain e-mail programs and spam filters, to malfunction.

Those criticisms were highlighted in the ICANN report issued today. Because dot-com is such a ubiquitous online destination, those systems rely on the smooth functioning of the dot-com infrastructure; when that infrastructure is changed it can cause ripples throughout the Internet, Crocker said.

"VeriSign's actions did not have network-shattering effects but did violate fundamental architectural principles and well-established codes of conduct and good practice intended to ensure stability," the report said.

"They [VeriSign] took actions which imposed costs on third parties. Other people had to spend money and do work that was kind of unilaterally be imposed on them by VeriSign's actions. They did what they wanted to do and other people were displaced," Crocker said.

When VeriSign took Site Finder offline in October, it did so under protest, arguing that the service was overwhelmingly popular with ordinary Internet users -- VeriSign said its own survey found that 84 percent of users thought Site Finder was "helpful." Galvin said VeriSign continues to "work with the community on how to improve" Site Finder, but he said the company has not made any decision to relaunch it.

Crocker said the ICANN committee found that the problems with Site Finder were beyond simple fixes. "We don't know of any way to make it a safe or palatable process," he said.

VeriSign officials have also argued that ICANN overstepped its bounds when it demanded that the service be turned off. The company sued ICANN in February, asking that a federal judge scale back the oversight body's power to decide what new services are added to the Internet's domain-name system. The case is still pending.

The report now goes to the ICANN Board of Directors, which has the final say on any rules relating to Site Finder and similar services.

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