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Nominet Position Paper on Front Running

Michele Neylon

Nominet has published a very detailed and comprehensive position paper on "front running". Although the paper is a mere 5 pages long it covers all the areas that the topic encompasses very well and is well worth a read.

The topic of "front running" has received some publicity in the last few months. If you're not familiar with the concept Nominet's definition is helpful:

Domain Name Front Running (DNFR) is a technique believed to exist, but so far unproved, whereby one person monitors the activity of a second person who is planning to register a domain name and the first person then registers the domain name before the second person.

While nobody can deny that there maybe a certain amount of "front running", it probably doesn't warrant as much attention as people are currently giving it. During one of the SSAC's sessions at the recent ICANN meeting in Los Angeles the topic was touched on briefly, but nobody has been able to provide any tangible evidence of it actually occurring.

As someone who works in the internet business I've been contacted several times by clients who felt that they were victims of DNFR. Unfortunately for the clients none of the cases were genuine, as the names could easily have been chosen by someone else for perfectly legitimate reasons.

One of the things that isn't mentioned in the Nominet paper, however, is Whois caching. As Nominet is a registry it's understandable that they may have overlooked this issue. In essence what happens is that larger registrars don't use Whois lookups to check availability, as Whois is far too slow. It might work fine for Joe Soap who only sends a few queries to the servers per day, but when you are generating thousands of queries per hour you want and need ultra-fast responses. Rather than rely on the mechanisms underlying Whois many registrars use other methods, such as polling copies of zonefiles etc., to check domain availability. The result being that it is possible that a domain may appear to be available after it has been registered. Of course the time differences we're talking about can be minutes or even seconds, but the average registrant probably isn't aware of this.

In any case, I hope that the SSAC and other organisations don't waste too many resources on this sort of investigation. While it may have its merits there are other matters that are of much greater importance to both registrars and registrants that should be addressed and any time spent on secondary and less important matters is a distraction. 

By Michele Neylon, MD of Blacknight Solutions. More blog posts from Michele Neylon can also be read here.

Related topics: Cybercrime, Cybersquatting, DNS, Domain Names, ICANN, Whois

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Comments

Re: Nominet Position Paper on Front Running Jon Nevett  –  Dec 06, 2007 2:53 PM PDT

I’m Jon Nevett, Vice President of Policy at Network Solutions.  Regarding Nominet’s study of domain name front running, I don’t know about .co.uk, but the practice certainly exists in gTLD space.  Based on our experience and investigations, we disagree with the suggestion that front running cases are merely coincidental with other online activities, and that the problem is little more than a “public perception” issue.  Our customers certainly have suffered from this troubling practice, and other registrars have stated the same thing.  We are in a much better position than registries to know that it’s happening.  Something should be done to protect consumers from such practices — it cannot wait for endless ICANN studies and policy development.  Unfortunately, the failure to act is undermining consumer confidence in the domain registration process.

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