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Google Tells Domain Tasters to Go Fly a Kite - An Exercise in Ethics-over-IP

February 06, 2008

Internet domain registrants usually are given a five-day grace period between the time a web domain is registered and the time that payment for owning the domain is due. It was a noble idea designed to enable registrants to fix mistakes – such as when accidentally misspelling a new domain name. This five-day window of opportunity, however, led to the rise of “domain tasting” whereby computer users sample large numbers of domain names, placing Google (News - Alert) AdSense for Domains or Yahoo’s Domain Match advertisements the otherwise empty website, and testing to see how much ad revenue each name generates. When people surfing the web click on such ads, both Google and the domain site owner get a percentage of the revenue. In a way, Google gets ‘paid’ by domain name tasters in that the ad clicks generated by the tasting domains occur because a user has ‘tasted’ that domain: When someone clicks on an ad, Google gets its money and passes along a cut to whoever own the website hosting the ad.

The users keep the profitable site names and simply cancel permanent registration of the unprofitable domains before the grace period expires. It’s a big reminiscent of how some people take advantage of some retailers generous return policies (such as L.L. Bean’s) by buying expensive apparel with a credit card, then getting the retailer to fully refund the purchase price, plus any duties and tax charges, directly back to them.

In January 2007, VeriSign observed that among the top 10 domain registrars, domain tasting was responsible for 95 percent of all deleted .com and .net domain names. Name Intelligence Inc. also reported that, in December 2006, 1.2 million domain names were undergoing ‘tasting’ each day, a huge increase from the 7,200 domains tasted a mere two years earlier.

In June 2007, the organization that oversees the Domain Name System (DNS) called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names (ICANN), issued a report describing the effects of domain tasting on the Internet, all of which are bad: DNS destabilization, consumer confusion, increased costs to lawful registrants, trademark abuse and criminal activity (e.g. connections to spam and malware).

“Domain kiting” is the most avaricious extrapolation of this practice, with registrants canceling their domain name just before the grace period expires, which is followed by their immediately re-registering it. By repeating this process ad infinitum, payment for the domain is postponed indefinitely and yet the registrant at the same time is making money with the domain.

Advertisers are not actually harmed by domain tasting and kiting, since traffic reaches their site regardless. The parties truly harmed by this practice are owners of legitimate, content-laden websites that make a living from Google AdSense ads (and their ilk), and of course whoever should be keeping the domain registration fee (ISPs and ICANN).

Yahoo has sued several domain name registration companies regarding tasting and kiting, as has Dell (News - Alert) Inc. and BMW.

Moreover, phishing attacks involve buying domains with stolen credit cards and taking advantage of them before a hapless victim realizes what’s going on and tries to reverse the credit card transaction. Blacklist prevention systems such as McAfee (News - Alert) SiteAdvisor and PhishTank are generally not able to keep up with such rapid domain changes.

Google has now heroically stepped forward and is introducing (as of February 11, 2008) a new ‘secret sauce’ technology to both detect and prevent unscrupulous profiteers from domain kiting using Google AdSense ads. By preventing registrants from making money from websites unless there are at least five days old, Google will cause one of the biggest upheavals in the history of the web. Google recognizes that they’ll probably lose millions in advertising revenue, but it’s refreshing to see a gargantuan company thinking about all of those little legitimate, hard-working website owners out there.

Heaven knows that the World Wide Web has resembled the Wild West in terms of business ethics. Scams, get-rich-quick schemes, sites that install malware on unsuspecting PCs, domain and trademark piracy, abound in cyberspace.

Google’s motto is “Do no evil” and, indeed, domain tasters are evil in that they’re making money on web traffic they don’t really deserve, off of sites that they haven’t paid for and don’t really own. Since Google is an unwitting partner in this, it was high time that they did something about it, and so they did.

So, a tip of the hat to Google, one of the few Good Guys of the Internet.

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Richard Grigonis is an internationally-known technology editor and writer. Prior to joining TMC as Executive Editor of its IP Communications Group, he was the Editor-in-Chief of VON Magazine (News - Alert) from its founding in 2003 to August 2006. He also served as the Chief Technical Editor of CMP Media’s Computer Telephony magazine, later called Communications Convergence (News - Alert) (NewsAlert), from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. In addition, he has written five books on computers and telecom (including the Computer Telephony Encyclopedia and Dictionary of IP Communications). To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

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