One Degree Editor-in-Chief Kate Trgovac asked me to comment on the recent furor in the domain name industry surrounding the discovery that a major registrar, Network Solutions, was practicing what is referred to as domain name "front running." This article provides a good starting point to the whole scandal.
(Full disclosure, I work for Tucows, which, like Network Solutions, is one of the world’s largest domain name registrars.)
“Front running” refers to the dishonest (in my and most people’s opinion) practice of monitoring a person’s WHOIS lookups (searches for domain name availability) and then, soon after, secretly registering any of those domain names that are still available. It’s intellectual property theft, pure and simple. It’s also a blatant abuse of the domain name system, and it gives the industry a bad name.
Here’s what happens. Say you have an idea for a domain name. If you use Network Solutions to search for and register domain names, you would do a search for (say) “OneDegreeRocks.com”. If the domain name is available, but you choose not to register it that very moment, Network Solutions goes ahead and, in essence, registers OneDegreeRocks.com anyway. Then, if you or anyone wants to obtain that domain name, the only company the domain is available from for the next 5 days is … you guessed it … Network Solutions.
After 5 days, Network Solutions releases the name back into the open market, however by then the fact that the domain was ‘of interest’ to someone has been made public to anyone with the ability to mine the WHOIS database. Your ‘secret’ idea for a domain or company name is not so secret anymore…
Now that they have been confronted with this, Network Solutions have attempted to justify their behaviour by spinning what they are doing as protecting their customers from front running. The irony is that they are using front running to do this. (Note: As I write this, I have just learned that Network Solutions may have put a halt to this practice. Let’s hope so.)
In light of this new ‘development’ in the industry, my advice to One Degree readers is to be very careful where you do your WHOIS lookups. Make sure you are using the service of a registrar that is not going to be spying on your searches or obstructing your ability to choose where and when you can register a domain name. Here’s a useful blog post from Elliot Noss, Tucows President and CEO, on “Questions to Ask Before You Pick Your Domain Name Registrar.” It features a lot of useful information about how to evaluate potential registrars before you make a domain name purchase.
(And yes, for the record, Tucows does NOT engage in front running. We don’t use WHOIS query data or search data to front run domain names. You can trust our WHOIS and the domain lookup search boxes of our resellers.)