So who really owns and controls our domain names? Unfortunately, just because a domain is registered in your name or company doesn't mean you have complete control over it. Take the case of Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders, who was planning to upload a controversial film critical of Islam on to his web site. Before he could do so, Network Solutions -- the company that controls the ".com" and ".net" domain space -- decided to take preemptive action and suspend his web site (www.fitnathemovie.com).
So Network Solutions has, in effect, expanded its role from domain name registrar to first-stage gatekeeper and censor. But it's not the only one making, or capable of making, such decisions. According to Karl Auerbach, a former ICANN board member, many domain name registrars have similar policies that allow them to take over a domain name registration on very subjective criteria.
Commenting on the Wilders case on a mailing list recently, Auerbach suggests that we now have a de facto law of the Internet in which registrars can impose their private view of Internet morality and acceptable use. "Given that most registrars are for-profit companies they will generally take the path that is most likely to avoid conflicts -- which tends to mean a rather puritanical outlook and a willingness to sacrifice a $10 domain name registrant," he said.
The Wilders case is only the most recent in a long list of examples of censorship via domain name -- a trend that seems to be growing. As most already know, there are many services that baulk at having anything to do with sites critical of China and will pull such sites if they think it will dampen their business. However, even freedom-loving America has been at the forefront thanks to the takedown of whistle-blower site Wikileaks.org (it's now back up).
For those who missed it, a US district court judge ordered a domain registrar to delete wikileaks.org from the domain name system (DNS). The reason? Because it posted some documents from a dodgy bank in the Cayman Islands, that bastion of dodgy banks. Given that the US is trying to clean up banking in places like the Cayman Islands, you'd think the authorities would have been happy, but no, they didn't even give Wikileaks a chance to defend itself in court -- it was simply and swiftly cut off.
The scary think about the Wikileaks.org case is that the authorities knew they could not simply ask the hosting service to take it down -- in this case it was hosted in the more freedom-conscious Sweden. So they went directly to the service that hosted its DNS records in the US. Thankfully, there are always ways to route around censorship, and you could still get to the site via alternative domains in the likes of Germany (wikileaks.de) and Belgium (.be) or via an IP address.
LOCAL CONTROLS: The stories of domain control got me thinking again about how important it is to find a domain name registrar that is as flexible and non-controlling as possible. Recently I've been working with a web site that had a domain name registered via Melbourne IT, one of the region's largest registrars and hosting services. The domain has been dormant for a while so I wanted to get a basic site up and running quickly as well as attach a few email addresses to the domain.
One of the quickest and cheapest ways of getting a web presence is to use the services at Google Apps, which I'd done before. So we decided to get something up with this and then plan a more elaborate site, perhaps with third-party hosting, through the new ".Asia" name that has also been acquired. The problem is, Melbourne IT doesn't seem to work well with Google Apps, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that Google's free service is likely to steal business from Melbourne IT's paid-for web and mail hosting services.
Specifically, to use Google Apps you first have to prove that you own the domain. You can do this either by uploading a piece of code to your domain or by creating a CNAME record with the same Google-generated code. Sounds technical but it's actually straightforward, and altering the CNAME record to point to Google is something you have to do later anyway. The problem is, Melbourne IT doesn't allow you to do either.
I contacted their customer support, both via email and phone, and both times they told me that I couldn't do what I wanted. They don't offer any access to the CNAME records, despite this being a common task and available through most domain registrars, and they pointed out that if I wanted to upload Google's 1K file for verification I would have to sign up for hosting. Even the suggestion that I would find another registrar didn't seem to push them into finding me a solution.
Thankfully, in Australia the local domain authority (auDA) mandates that registrars must transfer a domain name to another registrar if requested by the user. That's a process I'm starting now. First up though, I'll be researching to make sure that the new registrar is as flexible and user-friendly as possible. -- Geoff Long