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Al’s Story: Another Small Domain Holder Falls Victim to Flawed ICANN Policy

Al Bode is typical of the many small, individual domain name holders throughout the United States and the world. He is a high school teacher of the Spanish language, not a techie, and he registered the domain IOWAWLA.ORG to provide an online presence for the Iowa World Language Association, a professional association for foreign-language educators in the US State of Iowa, of which he is a member. This domain could in no way be considered a commercial venture. In his own words, “I am a school teacher from Iowa whose websites are personally funded for the express purpose of education. There is no profit motive or even profit other than the knowledge that others may gain from my website.”

Al’s online experience began the way many small domain holders’ does: he responded to an advertisement from a virtual host company named Feature Price, who leased him space on their server for his website, and offered to register the IOWAWLA.ORG domain on Al’s behalf, in this case through domain registrar DotRegistrar. This is where the seminal mistake was made that would later cause Al so much grief: when Feature Price registered Al’s domain they did so on behalf of “a FeaturePrice.com customer”, and assigned the critical Administrative and Technical contacts to “Hosting-Network, Inc. [email protected]”, which turns out to be an online alias for FeaturePrice. So at this point, Al’s virtual host is the holder of record for his domain, not Al. Of course, Al, being a neophyte domain owner, is not aware of why this is a bad thing, nor is he even aware that he should be concerned! So he builds his Web site, posts it to Feature Price’s server, and his life goes on. Until Feature Price goes out of business.

To their credit, Feature Price did notify its customers of its closing, and gave them instructions to “Contact [DotRegistrar] to release domain name to you directly, we have provided them with 100% of all domains and their proper entitlements information. They can assist you. No one else can assist you with a domain name from DotRegistrar. [sic]”. So Al contacted DotRegistrar as instructed, only to find out that the registrar, citing ICANN rules, refused to transfer the domain at Al’s request without permission of the Administrative contact, i.e. the now-defunct host Feature Price, who by this time were no longer answering their email!

In frustration, Al sent a message to the At-Large Advisory Committee, appraising them of his untenable situation and hoping for ICANN intervention. Of course, his pleas went nowhere within ICANN. However that message brought his issue to the attention of persons monitoring ICANN’s activities, and his plight began circulating within a circle of organizations devoted to Internet governance issues, including IcannAtLarge.org, where this author became aware of it.

A week after his site went down, Al was contacted by Atlantic.net, another virtual host who had purchased the assets of Feature Price, which they apparently assumed included the defunct company?s customer accounts, including Al’s. And from their e-mail correspondence Atlantic.net was obviously expecting all of Feature Price’s old accounts to stay on (for an increased fee, of course!). However, by this time Al, whose focus was getting his site back online, had already arraigned to host his domain with another virtual host, C I Host, and all he wanted to do was gain administrative rights to his domain and move on.

However, it took Al yet another week of negotiating with DotRegistrar, several messages to Internic, and help from C I Host interpreting WhoIs information to figure out who had control of his domain, before he finally got administrative rights and could access the control panel on DotRegistrar to change his domain’s DNS addresses to point to C I Host’s servers.

Unfortunately, that isn?t the end of Al?s tale. It seems that, shortly after resolving his hosting issues, Al?s site again went offline when his domain registration with DotRegistrar expired! Even though Al never received any notice from DotRegistrar about his domain?s status, their DNS servers were no longer resolving his domain name to his virtual host?s server. Instead, a ?parked domain? page from DotRegistrar?s site was displayed when the URL was visited. He contacted DotRegistrar and was told he’d let his registration lapse. They refused to let him move his domain to another registrar, and told him, “at this stage you can ask us to reactivate your expired domain for a cost of 17 (seventeen) DRYs. Please be aware that this expensive service (which guarantees a 100% chance of recovery) is based on fees DotRegistrar has to pay to the registry.” It would be interesting to know which fees that might be, and why they are levied to simply click a few check boxes in a Web form! Of course, faced with the possible loss of his doman, Al had no choice but to pay the excessive fee to get his website turned back on!

Altogether, Al’s domain was offline the better part of two weeks the first time, and over a week the second time. If he had been a small businessperson who made his livelihood through e-commerce, such protracted outages could easily have been an unrecoverable event leading to bankruptcy. The fact that he wasn’t makes this tale no less cautionary, since the next victim who finds him or herself in similar circumstances might have much more to lose!

Where are the holes?

Al’s inability to gracefully change his domain over to another host in a timely manner has its roots in ICANN’s current rules, which have no provisions to cover such circumstances as Al experienced. And although his specific experiences may be unique, the lack of customer focus they point out is familiar to those of us used to watching (and often experiencing!) current business practices in the Internet industry. Specifically, in Al’s case I see three holes that need to be plugged:

  • Feature Price’s owners—who I suspect knew they would have received far less for the remains of their company if the accounts weren’t part of the package!—had no incentive to ensure a graceful exit for their former customers! This is not to say that Feature Price intentionally interfered with domain hosting transfers, rather the opposite: they simply quit answering their e-mail and went dark. Nor can I assume that every domain Feature Price had set up for it’s customers on DotRegistrar had administrative and technical accounts set to their alias, as in Al’s case, even though most companies usually follow standard procedures with all customers. But at least in Al’s case, the confusion and delay the improper contact assignment caused certainly gave them time to sell off their interests and disappear! And more importantly, they point out that ICANN has no rules in place that set appropriate expectations for timely customer service, and ensure that down time of customer’s domains is minimized!
  • ICANN does not have any rules in place to guide registrars when the domain holder’s host goes out of business. As Al so succinctly wrote to me, “The status quo apparently assumes companies will continue forever, without a thought as to what can occur in situations such as mine.” Due to this lack of forethought, there are no contingency rules in place to deal with a failed host, or—God forbid!—a failed registrar!
  • Finally, Al’s troubles were exacerbated by his domain WhoIs record pointing to his virtual host company as both Administrative and Technical contacts. You would think there would be a rule requiring third parties registering a domain on a customer’s behalf to at least assign the Administrative contact to the person paying the bills! Unfortunately, at the time most of the current registration rules were written, virtual hosts were all but nonexistent. Companies and persons wishing to stand up a domain had to set up their own servers, so a modicum of technical knowledge was assumed. The rules have never kept up with the realities of the new business models that evolved.

How do we fill these holes?

From my narrative above it is obvious that ICANN’s rules are lacking in several specific areas, which need to be addressed:

  • First, ICANN needs to expand on and enforce the rules governing registries, registrars and virtual hosing companies; to mandate protection of customers’ hosted systems and ensure the continuous domain name resolution. Particularly, domain names should be portable: domain holders should be able to move their domain between registrars or virtual hosts at will, and registrars should not be allowed to cut off DNS resolution for a domain name, or threaten to do so, in order to secure an extension of the customer’s accounts.  ICANN supposedly has the power to tell registries and registrars they are no longer authorized to do business if they play fast and loose with their customers, but to the knowledge of myself and many others I have discussed this issue with, ICANN has yet to exercise so much as a threat of executing such an option, let alone actually shutting an offender down. ICANN needs to use their power for a change and disenfranchise an offending registrar or two. If they did so, I imagine the surviving registrars would become far more customer friendly overnight!
  • ICANN also needs to establish rules to protect the customers of registries, registrars, and virtual hosting companies, in the event that a company fails. I expect this may turn out to be less easy to mandate than some might think, since company shareholders usually have first call on assets when a company goes “belly up”. However, ICANN needs to make it clear that customers’ accounts, domain names and customers’ content hosted on a defunct business’ systems are not “assets” that a company or their shareholders have a right to expect to manipulate in order to maximize shareholder profit (or minimize loss)! ICANN should even be willing to take this issue to bankruptcy court, if necessary, to secure this result!
  • ICANN needs to mandate that, when an intermediate company registers a domain on behalf of a customer, the domain record’s administrative contact, as a minimum, must reflect the customer, not the company acting on the customer’s behalf. I can understand why a virtual host may desire to identify themselves as the technical contact, since they are the ones maintaining the systems hosting the domain. But the domain holder of record must be the person or company on whose behalf the domain was registered.

By Bruce Young, Senior Desktop Support Analyst

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