TechnologyPlaying the domain name game

Playing the domain name game

Five years ago there was a rush by the unscrupulous to register company domain names and effectively hold them to ransom. The trend didn't just affect companies, as a range of organisations and groups discovered they had lost the right to use their names online.

Examples were widespread, with the likes of Burger King, Buckingham Palace and even the Spice Girls hit. Corporations were angry, but paid up because the amount demanded was less than chasing the person that had registered their name through the courts.

But domain name thieves got greedier, and like all get-rich-quick schemes, it eventually crumbled. BT, Marks & Spencer, Ladbrokes, Sainsbury’s and Virgin Enterprises banded together, refused to pay and did go to court. They won, and we heard little more about super-highway robbery.

Now these sharp practices have resurfaced. Companies are paranoid about retaining the rights to their names, and so are a soft target. Phone up and tell a company that someone is trying to register a domain name very similar to theirs and the panic button is hit.

Companies such as Anet play on these fears. They know that companies don’t want to face the prospect of losing their name or customers to another company. (And it does happen. The Poetry Society recently changed its domain name to www.poetrysociety.org.uk after its original name was taken by people peddling Viagra.)

If Anet just wanted you to pay the registration fee you would thank it for heading off a sticky situation. But after telling readers that someone was trying to register their domain name, without offering any proof, it outlined a raft of services, making it an expensive deal.

We must thank Anet for swelling our post bag. Readers have been appalled by its tactics, and complained bitterly about its aggressive sales techniques. Most readers have re-registered their name elsewhere for a fraction of the cost. Some have fallen for its sales pitch, and been frustrated by the result. No one likes to feel they’ve been conned, even if in the eyes of the law, they have not.

We have passed the letters onto the Office of Fair Trading and domain name registration body Nominet, and will keep you informed on developments. Nominet by its own admission has little power to act, other than to warn Anet to stop, or risk being struck off as a member.

So it is really all down to the OFT to investigate, but it isn’t even sure this falls into its remit. It told us to contact Icann, which has proved extremely difficult. Domain name registration has long suffered from having a poor image, and this kind of buck passing doesn’t help. How can the industry clean up its act when complaining against questionable practices is made so hard?

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