Remember Sitefinder? I still have my notes from a session four years ago that was led by Steve Crocker. VeriSign (the registry operator for .com and .net) introduced a change in the way .com/.net operated. A misstyped domain would return the address of a host that was one of VeriSign’s own instead of an error message. There was considerable pushback from the community. VeriSign quickly suspended the service.
The generic name for what VeriSign was doing was a “wildcard.” Before SiteFinder was implemented, if you typed the name of a nonexistent .com domain (say, scrrawford.com hadn’t been registered), you’d receive back a “name not found” answer. After SiteFinder, if you typed a nonexistent domain you’d receive back a referral to a server controlled by VeriSign. VeriSign claimed that they weren’t retaining or collecting any data in connection with this service, and pointed out that other registries (mostly country code top level domains) also used wildcards. (Internet Explorer does something similar. If you misstype a domain, you’ll get a page of suggestions. There’s money to be made from confusion.)
What was the point of SiteFinder? To send confused users to a potentially “useful” page — a page that would have (eventually) been populated with links to advertisements and other relevant materials. In the end, had the service stayed in place, VeriSign would have been able to monetize this confusion – making money from the pay-per-click advertisers that populated the potentially “useful” page.
Why was there uproar? Because not all domain record requests are made in connection with hunting for web pages – spam filtering email services got hung up on the wildcard service. There’s a commonly-used spam filtering rule that rejects messages with envelope sender addresses that do not resolve, and other protocol (non-web) requests didn’t react well to the redirection. Sitefinder didn’t break the internet, but it did cause a number of small problems for applications that rely on domain name queries. The DNS infrastructure is very sensitive to change, and SiteFinder was viewed as a “system expectation violation.” The plumbing was getting uppity, and that wasn’t appreciated.
In recent years, the market has filled with “parked” pages. If you misstype a domain name, chances are you’ll go to a page that someone has registered and has populated with a bunch of (somewhat) relevant links. Again, the aim is advertising revenue.
Over the last few days, Verizon has reportedly been doing something similar to its DSL and FiOS subscribers. According to ConsumerAffairs.com:
“When users misstype a web site address, they get redirected to Verizon’s own search engine page — even if they don’t have Verizon’s search page set as their default.”
One more time, the goal here is to make money from confusion. Verizon doesn’t want to be treated like plumbing – they’re anxious to make money from their users’ navigation failures. In order to get away from the Verizon default page, you’ll need to reset your DNS settings. Not something that the average user wants to cope with.
You can imagine this as a layered fight over confusion. First the DNS registry itself – VeriSign – tried to make money from misstyped domains. Then DNS registrants – the people who build parked pages – tried to get in on the value chain. Meanwhile, edge applications (like the browser) were doing the same thing. Now the ISP is inserting itself, trying to override the parked page and browser efforts.
Is this a violation of net neutrality? It certainly is a “system expectation violation.” We don’t expect ISPs to be filtering our web browsing requests and inserting themselves into the conversation. There’s some concern that the ISP could be doing more than presenting a response page, as we’ve seen from the Comcast flap. Although in a larger sense it’s just what all the other players in the chain want to do – make money from disorder – we want to avoid having the plumbing, the transport, do this without a user’s acquiescence.
I have a feeling that Verizon’s actions here will cause as much upset as VeriSign’s.
(Say “Verizon/VeriSign” quickly a few times.)
Cross-posted from Susan Crawford blog