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UK register Nominet is planning a complete revamp of its domain re-registration service that may see millions able to sign up for their dream domain.

The organisation's Policy Advisory Board (PAB) is asking for comments on a consultation paper for a new "wait listing service" which will enable people to pay a fee to put their names down for a domain they want but which is currently owed by someone else.

The responses will form the basis of Nominet's future policy but you only have until 12 March to make your voice heard. So far, just three responses have been received, so any input you give may help shape the future of the UK domain system.

The issue is hardly academic either, with an incredible 750,000 UK domains currently listed as "detagged" - meaning that they are currently owned by no-one and will soon be released back into the market. This means that 19 per cent of all UK domains are up for grabs.

We spoke to the man behind the WLS consultation - Nominet director and PAB member Alex Bligh - about the possible change to the system and also to Chris Holland of CHC Internet, who offers a service called DropCatcher which enables people to grab hold of domains put up for sale.

Do we need a WLS?

Wait listing services have traditionally been controversial, with the recent introduction of one in the US creating a furore. Mr Bligh tells us that Nominet hopes to learn from others' mistakes and put everything up for discussion so the best method can be found.

"First of all we haven't decided for definite that we will introduce a WLS," he tells us. "There are a couple of problems we are looking to solve." The demand for domains not renewed and so put up for sale is huge, he admits. However, due to the current Nominet set-up, the market has had to invent systems that achieve this aim. The result, he says, is something technically inefficient that eats up vast resources.

With the companies that sell renewal services living or dying on how efficiently they can get hold of released domains, Nominet has entered into a game of cat and mouse in which it tries to outsmart those monitoring its systems in order give ordinary members of the public the chance of getting hold of released domains.

In the end, most domains are released using the same method: a "drop" of several thousand domains into the system at once, without notice and at a different time of day or night each time. This had led to those companies that attempt to scoop up the domains being termed "drop catchers".

With such unpredictability, drop catchers therefore monitor Nominet's systems 24 hours a day. Chris Holland explains how it works: "There are two ways of monitoring a drop. One is via the Whois technology - constantly pulling the information for domains out and asking if they are available to be registered - if so, you fire off a PGP-signed email asking to register it. But Nominet now tends to turn the Whois system off when it makes a drop.

"The other is through speculatives - many times a day you send a subscription request for a certain domain to the automaton. If you send it frequently enough you can frequently guarantee you will get it."

All this activity is automated using first-rate web servers and specially designed and written code that Mr Holland reckons would take a couple of man years' of work to recreate from scratch.

Alex Bligh points out that this constantly hammering of Nominet's systems not only uses up valuable resources but also makes it harder for normal requests from business and individuals to go through. As such, Nominet has been forced to choke the questioning services. This stands at 50 speculative requests per five minutes (Nominet's system is updated at exact five minute intervals) and one Whois request per IP address per second, Mr Holland tells us.

Creating a fairer system

The question then is whether Nominet should become involved in creating a system that allows people to stake a claim on a particular domain before it is released and so bypass the current drop method. This, it is felt, will lift the weight off Nominet servers and also allow for a fairer system in which individuals have a chance to get the domain they want.

Mr Holland is, unsurprisingly, not persuaded and has outlined his objections in a response to the PAB. The demand on the servers could be greatly reduced if Nominet said it would only release domains at night, so drop catchers could turn their systems off during the day. Also, setting up a separate Whois server that returns only whether the domain is registered or not would hugely reduce resources needed (Alex Bligh says he believes this server has already been agreed to within Nominet).

As for the fairness of the system, Mr Holland argues that a WLS system would be no more or less fair than the current system. Individuals will still have virtually no chance of getting hold of a premium domain name like "taste.co.uk" (recently sold to Sainsburys for an estimated £120,000) or "shopping.co.uk" - sold for £50,000.

As for personalised domains such as "jonesbookstore.co.uk", it is unlikely there will be a rush for the domain as it is too specific. Plus, he argues, someone can 90 per cent guarantee getting hold of it by signing up to DropCatcher's £29 service. Mr Holland argues that since his service includes two years' registration and free change of the DNS and Tag details, he will work out far cheaper than if a WLS system and an extra layer of bureaucracy were introduced.

Philosophical difference

At the bottom of these arguments however is a philosophical difference. Nominet increasingly sees itself as an organisation that ought to better serve its "stakeholders" - namely, normal UK Internet users. Mr Holland on the other hand, believes Nominet ought to put its members' interests before stakeholders. It costs £500 to join Nominet and a whole lot more to set up the systems that enable the UK domain system to exist as it does.

By pulling domain re-registration under its power, Nominet is effectively building a control economy in domain names. Mr Holland fears this is empire and monopoly building, Mr Bligh explains slightly tongue-in-cheek that Nominet prefers the term "unique market position".

Mr Bligh points out that while in the States, VeriSign was lambasted for seizing control of renewed domains, this was mostly because it was guilty of blatant profiteering by charging eight times the amount it cost to run the service. Nominet, he says, will charge on a cost-recovery basis.

As for the risk that with many domains now worth small fortunes, the possibilities for corruption within Nominet are enormous, he says that that is also currently the case but at least with an open WLS system it would make any dodgy deals more transparent.

If you assume that a WLS is the way forward, there remain a large number of questions over how it could and should be run. Should a WLS subscription apply only to one domain name? Should it run ad infinitum, for two years, or until the domain is either released or re-registered? Should more than person be allowed to put down a request on a domain? If so, how do you decide which person gets the domain in the end? How long should a domain owner be given before the domain is passed onto the person with the WLS request? Should a WLS fee include two years' registration?

The questions are many and varied and Alex Bligh says he wants to attract as many views as possible. So if you would like to express your opinion, first read the consultation report (pdf file) available for download on Mr Bligh's site. Then email any comments to pab-feedback@nominet.org.uk, marking your email WAITLIST SUBCOMMITTEE.

The detagged question

And for those of you interested in why on earth Nominet still has 750,000 detagged domains hanging around doing nothing, here's the reason. Nominet assumes it has a contract with the registrant of the domain, so before it releases it, it attempts to contact the owner to make sure they don't want to re-register it. Alex Bligh tells us that "large chunks of these domains have inadequate contact details", causing a massive backlog.

But 750,000!? "This is something that is brought up board meeting after board meeting. The reason is history. The key thing when we first started was to make sure the registration systems worked. Then it was to work out how to bill for them. Then renewals became the most important aspect. But those that people didn't try to renew, well it was an area that hasn't been touched."

It seems that the original templates for registering domains bizarrely didn't include contact details and since Nominet is under an obligation to contact owners, this created a headache that continues to build and will only fade once the backlog is cleared and the new registration templates are two years old and their renewals come in.

We are assured that a big project is underway to sort out the detagged backlog that will be completed in less than six months from now. "But it's a bit like painting the Forth Bridge," explains Mr Bligh.

Crucially, he says that with the dotcom boom over, Nominet's business is now really domain renewals. Therefore the main aim is to make the re-registration system much more efficient. The call for views on the introduction of a WLS is just one way in which Nominet hopes to achieve this. ®

Related Links
WLS consultation document (pdf)
Chris Holland's domain grab service

Business security measures using SSL

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