Is this the end of the domain transfer nightmare?
ICANN has an opportunity to do something useful
An end to the frustrating, illogical and frequently abused system of transferring domain names between registrars may finally arrive this week at the ICANN meeting in Rio de Janeiro.
In meetings today and a council tomorrow, a report enticingly named "Policies and Processes for Gaining and Losing Registrars" will seek to bring some common-sense to the system of moving a domain from one registrar to another.
If adopted - and it remains an "if" - competition in the market for global top-level domains such as .com, .org and .biz will receive a huge boost and domain owners will be granted rights they have long been denied.
The report should ensure that domain registrars will no longer be able to abuse the system and prevent paying customers' efforts to move to a cheaper competitor. The most important phrase in the report states that the transfer process "should be easy, fluid, transparent and inexpensive".
The report removes the losing registrar's current ability to stop any transfer by simply failing to acknowledge it. Instead, it will have to give good grounds for stopping a transfer. A transfer will thus go ahead if both the domain owner and the winning registrar agree and there is no complaint.
Until now, some registrars have deliberately implemented an over-complex system for renewal - and occasionally nonsensical conditions - in order to either delay a transfer to beyond its expiry date or to make customers give up in frustration.
And even though the report has been watered down from its far-sighted initial standpoint, this basic handing over of power from a registrar to the actual owner of the domain is retained and is vitally important to the future of competition in the Internet market.
Of course, nothing to do with ICANN is ever that simple and the entire report could be thrown out if the ICANN Board so decides - and there is reason to believe it might do just that. There are, however, two very good points in the report's favour:
- It has - unusually - managed to jump all the procedural hurdles and as such is actually supported by important elements in the ICANN system
- It is so bloody obviously a good thing
Before you get all excited about the Internet being run in a normal efficient manner however, a brief bit of background.
In early 2001, a lot of registrars (the people that sell domain names to members of the public) started complaining that requests by domain owners to transfer their domains to themselves were being blocked or purposefully sabotaged by the company that currently owned them.
The companies that owned the bulk of domains were unwilling to see much of their business and profits float away to others simply because they were cheaper or more efficient. VeriSign had had a monopoly on selling domains until 1999 and so had the most to lose by domain transfers. It was also, unsurprisingly, the registrar most complained about.
In fact, VeriSign openly admitted a policy of not acknowledging requests for domain transfers because, it claimed, it wanted to reduce the number of fraudulent transfers - something it knew all about having wrongly transferred the Sex.com domain to con-man Stephen Michael Cohen years earlier. A mistake that may end up costing it $100 million.
Other registrars' complaints were sufficient for ICANN to suggest that a new policy be drawn up. It duly was and it was duly ignored by the very people it was aimed at. This is when the full glory of the ICANN decision-making process was unveiled.
In October 2001 (six months after the first complaints - or, alternatively, after a quarter of the world's domains had come up for renewal), a "fast track" Transfers Task Force was created by ICANN in order to come up with ways to sort the situation out.
The Task Force is one of seven that current exist within the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO). The GNSO comprises six constituencies and is one of three main supporting organisations to ICANN.
Over the course of the next 14 months, this vital reform by the Task Force went through the Joint Constituency, the Registrar Constituency, the Cross-Constituency, the DNSO Names Council, the DNSO General Assembly, back to the Task Force, back to the Registrar Constituency and the DNSO Names Council and then out for open consultation.
After this consultation had been finished and accounted, the Implementation Committee then had a good look at it and finally, incredibly, the report was born on 12 February 2003 - two years after it had all started.
Since it has the backing of the GNSO, it may get through and a major loophole in one of the fundamental systems of Internet usage will be shut down. How long it would take then to become a reality is anyone's guess.
However, it remains distinctly possible that VeriSign will use its unique relationship with ICANN to delay the report still further or even get it thrown out. We calculate that each year of delay is worth around $500 million to VeriSign. Which is quite a lot of impetus.
Either way, we should know by the end of the week. ®