EarthLink Criticized for DNS Redirects

Internet service provider EarthLink is drawing fire from customers after launching a test program in which it redirects nonexistent domains to a company-provided error page containing suggestions, a search box and advertisements.

Typically, if a domain name is not functional, the Web browser displays an error saying it cannot find the page. But with billions of domains being visited each day, resulting in potentially hundreds of millions of typos, those errors could be quite lucrative to businesses such as EarthLink.

Microsoft by default redirects DNS errors in Internet Explorer to an error page located on MSN Search, which encourages users to search the Web for what they are looking for. That page, however, does not contain an advertisement and can be disabled in IE.

VeriSign, which manages the DNS records for all .com and .net domains, saw a similar opportunity in 2003. The company began redirecting all nonexistent domains to what it called "Site Finder," which displayed a page containing links to possible intended destinations and a search box. VeriSign said 900 million DNS queries each day are for nonexistent domains.

However, Site Finder was met which a harsh rebuke from the Internet community, with some ISPs pledging to block the service. Consumers were unhappy their browser was being redirected to a VeriSign page and networked administrators questioned the security of adding a wild card DNS entry to all domains.

ICANN, the non-profit group that governs the Internet DNS system, demanded that VeriSign disable the service, which the company eventually did. But VeriSign later sued ICANN and, in response, won an extended contract to control both .com and .net through 2012.

While EarthLink's redirection will only affect the ISP's customers, some users claim EarthLink is attempting to profit from typo-domains much like Internet scams. The company acknowledges it will "generate revenue from the page," but claims that it provides a better experience for end-users. EarthLink has already been redirecting DNS errors for those using its browser toolbar.

Like with the VeriSign service in 2003, EarthLink concedes that the redirection will affect more than just Web site requests, but says it is "continuously monitoring and tuning the configurations to minimize its impact on non-web traffic."

Still, the change is irking a number of EarthLink customers, many of whom thought their browser was being hijacked by malware. EarthLink responded in a company blog posting on the issue, saying it was listening to the feedback and was working to resolve any problems. However, it does not intend to disable the DNS redirection.

EarthLink's Dave Coustan said the company would consider making changes, "if any alternatives become available."

"This IS a major abuse of how DNS works. And unless Earthlink offers alternate DNS servers for those of us who refuse to use this, it WILL cost you customers," wrote an EarthLink subscriber named Michael. "I give it 2 days, and then I'm switching. If I can't trust my ISP to not abuse DNS, then what good are they?"

Other users complained that they were being redirected on perfectly valid domains they had no problem visiting just days before. A number of customers attempted to call EarthLink support about the issue, but found there was no way to opt-out of the service. VPNs also seemed to be having problems with the redirects.

"Well I just cancelled my Earthlink account and went back to Road Runner because of this non-sense. It is affecting people that do work from home like VPNing into the office and such," wrote a user named Tom.

"I stuck with you out of some odd loyalty to independent ISPs but can no longer afford that luxury if Earthlink sees me merely as a revenue stream to milk dry at the expense of properly functional basic ISP services like DNS," added a user by the name of RD. "I believe I can speak for many here who mourn the death of what was a premier ISP. Rest in peace. I won't be around for the funeral."

24 Responses to EarthLink Criticized for DNS Redirects

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