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What's in a (Domain) Name

Sunni Maravillosa

For those of you who are new to DF!, we recently experienced a theft of our domain name. It's been an interesting couple of months, trying to get it back, and has given us some insights into how the domain registry system works--and doesn't. By sharing our story, I hope that other pro-freedom individuals can avoid similar problems maintaining their domain name.

We registered our domain name, doingfreedom.com, on April 20, using domaininvestigator.com. Their fee was very reasonable, and the site is automated, making it very convenient to set everything up. I browsed their site a bit to make certain they were a legitimate company, and in my na´vetÚ and haste, was satisfied by what I saw. Getting everything settled and providing service on their end was straightforward, and I was a happy customer.

Until this year, that is. We received a notice that our domain name was up for renewal in the middle of some major changes--among them a cross-country move of our family. Still, we managed to beat the April 20 deadline for renewal by about a week. Again, we used their online form, got a confirmation that our renewal had been received and processed by them, and continued trying to settle into our new home and work routine.

Then, around the 20th, I began receiving emails asking if DF! had been discontinued. Puzzled, I checked the site--but instead of going to the site, I received a "not found" error message. I wrote that off as part of the renewal process for a few days, but then someone told me that doingfreedom.com was active again--but it wasn't pointing to our site any more. It was a generic site devoted to selling stuff, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with freedom.

Friends immediately began tracking down the new registration of our domain name, and theories began flying. It turns out that the new registrant, a Mr. Greg Abrams, is in the business of buying newly-expired domain names in order to leech the traffic they've built. One individual claimed more sinister motives, implying that Mr. Abrams has ties to the thought police (this has yet to be verified). Some opined that his primary motive wasn't the traffic, but cash--in essence, hoping we'd be so desperate to get our domain name back we'd pay him big bucks for its return. Other stories of pro-freedom web sites having their domain names stolen began popping up, adding to the conspiracy interpretations.

I wrote to our domain registrar and showed them a copy of their email stating we'd successfully renewed the domain name, and requested that they act on our behalf to get it back. The response I received from Dale Collinge, the head man at domaininvestigator.com, was less than helpful. He said that they don't check every transaction to ensure it goes through, and since there wasn't an error message, they didn't know the renewal didn't go through. So sorry, he said, but he couldn't do anything to get it back. He also said that we should have renewed sooner (a week isn't enough advance time?!), in order to avoid such problems.

I wrote to ICANN about it, since Mr. Collinge was putting the responsibility for the oversight on their doorstep. They told me to buzz off. I then wrote back and requested that they investigate, since ICANN is supposed to oversee the domain registry process and my problem was with the company that I'd paid to renew the domain name. They--I can't give a person's name, because in keeping with the bureaucracy that spawned them, all correspondence was signed only with a haughty "ICANN"--said that they can't do anything in such cases. So much for their supposed policing of the 'Net...

Despite the urging of friends to write Mr. Abrams and ask him politely to yield our domain name, I resisted doing so, mostly because I didn't think it would do any good and because my time was consumed with other projects. I'd written the name off as a loss, and was resigned to trying to reserve "doingfreedom.info" when that top level domain becomes available, when someone wrote to inform me that doingfreedom.com had become available, and that he'd registered it on my behalf. (This kind individual also registered doing-freedom.com, which also points to the Doing Freedom! web site.) He speculated that Mr. Abrams had gotten a conditional registration, and when the time was up, chose not to register our domain name on a longer-term basis. I can only guess as to his reasons, but I think part of that was because he hadn't received any contact from us--he may have thought we didn't care, or that we weren't going to play the begging victim.

So, what do I think happened with our domain name renewal? I honestly don't think domaininvestigator intentionally bungled the renewal, although that remains a possibility. Pro-freedom sites are gaining in popularity these days, and sites that get a lot of traffic get attention. Given what I've heard and read about other pro-freedom sites' names being taken over by porn sites and the like, it's possible that someone with the power to do so is messing with their registrations, and allowing others with less than honorable purposes to buy up the names in exchange for a "fee". In any case, domaininvestigator did not serve us well by not even trying to correct the error that occurred when we renewed the domain name with them, and so I recommend you not take your business there. (Their parent company is domainpeople.com, so be on the lookout for them too--I wrote them about the problem and am still waiting, months later, for a reply.)

With whom should you do business? That's a good question. Some people say Network Solutions is the best, while others curse at their mere mention. What you should look for--what I didn't look for when choosing domaininvestigator--is a business that will protect your legal claim to your domain name. Domain Buyer's Guide is a web site that rates various registrars by cost, legal restrictions and protections for the customer, and overall service. They don't rank every possible registrar out there yet, but if you want to get a good one at a good price, this is a resource worth checking. The site also has other good information regarding registering and maintaining a domain name.

Our story has a happy ending, and several lessons to be learned from the experience. If you own a domain name, particularly a politically unpopular one or one with high traffic rates, be extra careful about registering and renewing it. Price can be an important consideration, especially if you're registering lots of names, but our experience shows that legal protection and good customer service are important, too. Given ICANN's apparent reluctance to do the things it was established to do, being vigilant about your domain names, and publicizing domain registrars who don't provide the service they're paid for are free-market actions that can help keep the web from further bureaucratic control.

(c) 2001

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