A decision by British company CentralNic to make all unregistered domains ending with "uk.com" direct to its own webpage has raised concerns over the future stability of the Internet.
CentralNic owns a series of valuable dotcoms including uk.com, us.com, eu.com and de.com and sells third-level domains e.g. www.theregister.uk.com to anyone for £32.50 a year. It runs around 100,000 domains.
However, no matter what domain you type in your browser (i.e. www.fskjsdkjkjsd.uk.com), so long as it hasn't been sold, you will redirected to CentralNic's own webpage, featuring advertising and an offer to buy that domain through its system.
The benefit to the company is clear - increased sales and advertising revenue - but the system by which the redirection is carried out, called wildcard, has been criticised by the Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC) of Internet overseeing organisation ICANN as putting the stability of the Internet at risk.
ICANN insisted that the owner of all dotcoms (and dotnets), VeriSign, pulls its version of the wildcard system, called SiteFinder, in late 2003 when it caused widespread disturbance across the Internet as email systems and spam filters stopped working.
The resulting report by the SSAC lambasted VeriSign for introducing SiteFinder and made a series of findings and recommendations, the first being that "synthesized responses should not be introduced into top-level domains or zones that serve the public".
Despite public claims by VeriSign that it will reintroduce the system, the method - created by making changes to the underlying DNS protocols of the Internet - was expected to become effectively blacklisted.
However, while CentralNic said it had "carefully examined all the potential implications" of introducing a wildcard service, including the SiteFinder considerations, the company's CTO, Gavin Brown, told us he had not read the SSAC report and that the company did not consider itself under the same contractual constraints as VeriSign with regard to ICANN and the wider Internet community.
"Given our relatively small footprint within the DNS system compared to, for example, any gTLD or ccTLD registry, and taking advice from our registrars, we concluded that introducing a wildcard under .uk.com would not have any serious implications for the stability of the Internet," Brown told us.
The SSAC report recognised that some wildcard systems are in place on the Internet, albeit in "generally small and well-organised domains". However, it said there remained shortcomings in the approach and recommended that "existing use of synthesized responses should be phased out in TLDs or zones that serve the public... and where delegations cross organisational boundaries".
Brown told us there had only been a very few problems since it introduced the system and most of them stemmed from wrongly configured Windows boxes trying to access the "uk.com" part of the Internet, rather than, presumably ".uk"or ".com". Since CentralNic does not run an email server on the main domains it owns either, email and spam problems have also not been the issue they were with VeriSign's SiteFinder.
However, with a clear profit incentive to introducing wildcard systems, it may be that CentralNic could act as a spur to more and more companies, especially if companies remain unchallenged by ICANN.
If large segments of the Internet start turning over to wildcard systems, there is a risk of the stability of the wider Internet being put at risk. And VeriSign is bound to argue for SiteFinder's re-inclusion if dozens of other companies are seen to benefit.
ICANN would then face the impossible task of either defining which domains may or may not use wildcard, or ban the system altogether. Either way, it is not a smooth road. ®