ICANN Ponders How to Thwart 'Domain Tasters'

A proposal by the overseer of the Internet's addressing system could make it a lot easier for people to reserve the domain name they want for their Web site.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is considering keeping the annual fee it charges registries for a registered domain name, even if the domain name is forfeited during the five-day Add Grace Period. ICANN currently charges US$0.20 per domain per year.

The move is intended to stop "domain tasting," a practice where thousands of domain names are purchased at a time and monitored to see which get the most traffic during the grace period, said Jason Keenan, media advisor for ICANN.

The grace period is intended to let people get a refund if they make a spelling mistake while registering a domain. But rogue registrars have been abusing the grace period by setting up thousands of Web sites stuffed with advertising links on newly registered domains.

The domain tasters then keep the ones that generate the most click-through advertising revenue and forfeit the unprofitable domains for a refund before the grace period expires. Some registrars have been known to repeatedly register and unregister domain names as the five-day grace period expires, essentially never paying for use of a domain.

Domain tasting is a problem for users since it means a domain they want to purchase may be temporarily or permanently unavailable. It also means more low-quality Web pages on the Internet that are designed only for generating advertising revenue.

The imposition of a fee would make it a lot more expensive for domain tasters, Keenan said.

"Right now you can go and register a million different names for five days and the cost is zero," Keenan said. "If this [proposal] comes through, the cost is $1 for five [domains]. It really changes the fiscal model of tasting."

A study released earlier this month by ICANN shows how bad the problem has become over the last two years. In January 2005, there were 1.7 million .com and .net domains registered. Of those, 700,000, or 41 percent, were deleted during the grace period, for a total net increase of 1 million domains.

During January 2007, 51 million domains were registered, but 48 million were deleted, or about 94 percent. "There was a net increase of 3 million names but most of the rest were just being 'tasted'," the report said.

The fee is also expected to put the brakes on another practice, known as "front running." Some ISPs and registries sell records of what domain names people have searched for, and those domains will end up being "tasted," said Susan Wade, spokeswoman for Network Solutions, a registry.

Often the tasters will try to sell those domains at inflated prices, she said. Network Solutions has tried to stop the behavior by registering a domain name for four day after someone conducts a search for one on its Web site.

Critics have decried the approach, saying that it forces customers to pay Network Solutions for a domain or face further competition when the domain goes back on the market. Wade countered that Network Solutions doesn't charge any more for the domain, and it prevents the domain from being immediately scooped up by a taster.

However, Wade said Network Solutions will stop the practice if ICANN imposes a fee.

"At that point, we believe that our customers would no longer need protection from front running," Wade said in an e-mail.

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