VeriSign Reconsiders Search Service
by David McGuire
A company that plays a key role in managing the Internet's domain system is considering whether to restart a controversial search service that makes money off Web users' typos, a move that threatens to reignite a debate over who controls key segments of the Internet.
Stratton Sclavos, chief executive of VeriSign Inc., told investors in a conference call last month that the company might relaunch its "Site Finder" service as early as April.
The company, based in Mountain View, Calif., manages the dot-com and dot-net Internet domains, giving it a uniquely influential role in how the online world operates. Resurrecting Site Finder would be an unfair advantage over search service competitors and an abuse of its privileged position, the company's critics have said.
Site Finder, which was launched in September, redirected people who type nonexistent or inactive Internet addresses to a search page created by VeriSign. The page offered links to similarly named Web sites as well as advertisements from companies that paid VeriSign to be listed on the page. The directory competed with similar search services from America Online and Microsoft.
Many of the technology experts, companies and nonprofit groups that oversee the Internet's infrastructure complained that Site Finder caused Internet services to malfunction, including filters that block spam e-mail and Internet browsers designed for non-English speakers.
VeriSign shut the service down in October after the group that runs the Internet's addressing system, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), threatened the company with fines and legal action.
The problem, critics have said, is that given VeriSign's role as the operator of the dot-com and dot-net registries, the Site Finder service causes repercussions throughout the Internet. VeriSign tells computers, wireless phones and other products that use the Internet where they can find dot-com and dot-net addresses -- and when an address does not exist. Redirecting incorrect Web site queries would force technologists to reconfigure hundreds of programs and devices to be compatible with Site Finder.
That would happen again if VeriSign relaunches Site Finder, said Paul Vixie, president of the Redwood City, Calif.-based Internet Systems Consortium, a nonprofit group that develops the software used by most of the world's Internet servers.
"What they're saying is, 'We want to shift cost to the community to increase our profit,'" Vixie said. "This is a form of theft by most legal definitions, if you're going to shift costs unilaterally toward another group of people to increase your own profits. It's certainly unethical and immoral and it would be illegal if you were to do it with physical goods."
VeriSign officials said they have taken pains to remedy any technological problems that Site Finder caused and maintained that Internet users benefit from the service.
"Site Finder was not controversial with users, 84 percent of whom said they liked it as a helpful navigation service," said Tom Galvin, VeriSign's vice president of government relations. "We continue to look at ways we can offer the service while addressing the concerns that were raised by a segment of the technical community."
Galvin said that the continued opposition stems from "an ideological belief by a narrow section of the technological community who don't believe you should innovate the core infrastructure of the Internet."
Critics also claim that VeriSign must run the domains as a public trust, not a profit-making opportunity. VeriSign is the sole operator of the dot-com and dot-net registries under a contract with ICANN.
"I don't begrudge them their profit, but someone in an effectively regulated monopoly position shouldn't use their power for their own profit, beyond the terms under which the community gave it to them," said Steven Bellovin, co-director of the Internet Engineering Task Force's Security Area.
Paul Rothstein a law professor at Georgetown University and a paid VeriSign consultant, said that the critics have some legitimate objections but others are motivated by the scientific and technology communities' "bias on policy."
Still, he added, it would be tough for VeriSign to win the public relations war because its opponents are highly regarded technologists.
ICANN will reserve judgment until VeriSign decides to relaunch Site Finder, said General Counsel John Jeffrey. VeriSign assured ICANN that it would give 60 to 90 days' warning to resolve any remaining technological problems, Jeffrey said.
In the meantime, ICANN is waiting for a final report on Site Finder from its Security and Stability Advisory Committee. Committee Chairman Steve Crocker said he doubts that Site Finder can be changed enough that it won't threaten the Internet's underlying infrastructure.
"I thought people were relieved that they took it down and it's hard to believe that there would be any quietness if they brought it back," Crocker said.