ICANN may end grace periods, killing off 'domain tasting'

A practice used by scammers to siphon off hits from users who misspell URLs in their browsers could be rendered impossible this year, as the organization responsible for the Internet's domain name system may end the program that makes the practice possible.

Just a few days ago, Google got some attention for announcing a policy that would effectively give it credit for killing off the practice of "domain name tasting," or "domain tasting," by exploitative DNS registrants. But as it turns out, one of the Internet's principal governing bodies, ICANN, had been preparing since last summer to come out against the practice anyway, and it did so yesterday.

ICANN announced it is advancing a budget proposal to be debated this spring that will eliminate the five-day "Add Grace Period" (AGP) for new registrants of a domain name. During that time, registrants have been allowed to correct their applications in case they were spelled wrong or in case they changed their minds.

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But a request last May by ICANN's At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), made up of select advisors from outside the board and representing many private firms, requested that the board investigate the practice with an eye toward what policy changes it could make to prevent it.

"The original intent of the AGP was to allow the no-cost cancellation of a domain registration when registrants or registrars mistyped or misspelled domain names during the registration process," read ALAC's request last May. "However, it is now widely employed for the completely different purpose of Domain Tasting, providing domain names at no cost allowing the tracking and calculating the amount of revenue generated while the name is parked at a monetization page during the AGP. Furthermore, nothing in the AGP or otherwise prohibits the same registrant or a possibly related registrant from immediately re-registering the name after it is dropped at the end of the five day grace period. Due to virtually instantaneous updating of the zone file, the registrant can get almost continuous use of a name at no net cost (a procedure known as Domain Kiting)."

The parked page can be monetized by virtue of generating an impression from an advertising service such as Google's AdSense. Google's new policy announced earlier this week, which takes effect next month, would stop "tasters" and "kiters" from generating revenue specifically through Google, though other means may remain available.

Surprisingly few registrants are actually involved in the practice of domain name tasting or kiting, though as it turns out, it doesn't take all that many. As ICANN reported yesterday, data for January 2007 revealed that a total of 47.8 million domain names had been deleted from the Internet's total registry. Of those, 45.45 million -- a full 95% -- had been deleted by just ten registrants, all of whom are suspected tasters.

In an ICANN report published last June (PDF available here) in response to the ALAC request, ICANN's Maria Farrell, Karen Lentz, and Patrick Jones argued that the organization might have justification to discontinue the AGP period based on the safety of the network as a whole.

"The tremendous volume and rate of registrations and deletions associated with tasting and kiting is described as placing operational loads on Registry systems that are orders of magnitude above steady-state operations," the ICANN team wrote. "Such incessant, systematic stress on registry systems could cause instability in the gTLD namespace or, worse, the entire domain name system."

As many as four million domain names could be tied up in tasting operations each and every day, the team said, based on data obtained in early 2007 -- the number today could be even higher. Each of those names may have some degree of legitimate desirability, though genuine potential registrants are prevented from taking advantage of those opportunities, they wrote, when they can't tell from one day to the next what the availability status of their desired names might be.

Ending the AGP is a budget matter because it's more than a policy matter. It would mean that every registrant is charged ICANN's annual fee the moment a DNS name is registered, whether or not it's spelled wrong.

Discussion of the matter will begin in May, while a formal debate on the budget item begins on July 1. A two-thirds vote among ICANN's accredited registrars will be necessary for the item to be adopted, and for grace periods to be discontinued.

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