It’s VeriSign’s Internet – We’re Just Visitors

Who owns this crazy Internet, anyway? That’s a complicated question, but we may be closer than ever to an answer, thanks to typos.

Yes, good old-fashioned mistakes. It seems that about 20 million of them are made every day when people try to go directly to a Web site, only to transpose a couple of letters in the domain name. Before September 15th, they could have ended up in no-man’s land.

Then VeriSign launched a service that brought errant surfers to a helpful site, from which they could be directed toward their original destination — and exposed to a blast of advertising. Controversy followed quickly on the heels of the launch, with accusations flying fast and furious that VeriSign had disrupted the functioning of the Internet.

Spell Checker

In a way, it seems silly that a showdown would take place over something as trite as typos. But regardless of what brought us to this point, the big question is: Where do we go from here? Does anyone have the power to force VeriSign to stop providing its service? And if they did have that power, would they use it?

To its credit, VeriSign suspended the service at the behest of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a governing body of the Internet). As usual, the aggrieved parties aren’t consumers, though there is a bit of sleight-of-hand at work here. No, the real people crying foul are other domain registrars, which would love to have a slice of the pie for themselves.

Suspending the service wasn’t necessary. VeriSign could have been stubborn and forced ICANN to figure out a way to stop it. The unspoken threat — that ICANN would yank VeriSign’s right to register domains at all — was a pretty big potential club, but was ICANN really willing to show it, let alone use it?

Doubtful. In fact, VeriSign may yet choose to wait it all out, knowing it only has to hang on until the firestorm blows over and it is left alone to do as it pleases with the Web.

Monopoly Money

The tug-of-war has come down to the usual epithets. VeriSign is now a malevolent monopoly, using its registry power to scoop up money and generally throwing its weight around. But that’s not really the problem. The underlying issue is that the Internet grew up like a Wild West town, with very little understanding of what it would be like when it was on the verge of becoming the dominant communications medium for mankind.

Ideally, the Web would have been a planned community, like one of those Florida retirement communities Eric Estrada hawks on infomercials. Every expansion, every new addition, would have fit into the grand scheme. And the power, the control, would have been carefully balanced.

Spreading the Wealth

The Web’s governing body, ICANN, sort of understood that once things got under way, and it made a concerted effort to wrestle away the onetime oligopoly that VeriSign and a couple of other firms had over domain name registration. Now, it seems like you can’t swing a mouse without hitting someone willing to register and park your domain.

But ICANN still left VeriSign with control over how computers find their way to .com and .net domains. At the time, this probably seemed like a minor matter. Then, lo and behold, people started to find better ways to make money from the Internet — better than banner ads by far.

Suddenly, VeriSign found itself poised to cash in on the millions of eyeballs it was already handling every day. Overight, real estate that everyone thought was unusable swamp became valuable territory. Will it be divvied up like homesteads, or is this a case of finders, keepers? The answers will tell us a lot about who really controls the Internet.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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