Network Solutions to sell delinquent names

By Leslie Walker

June 24, 2000
(c) 2000, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Internet address king Network Solutions Inc. this week notified thousands of owners of online domain names with delinquent registration bills that it would "auction" their Internet addresses to the public unless they pay by Wednesday.

Customers and competitors of the Herndon, Va.-based company complained loudly about the auction plans, saying Network Solutions should instead be required to return all delinquent names to a public database where any of several dozen other accredited registrars could offer the dot-com, dot-org and dot-net names for sale.

"It's a matter of legal interpretation, and our counsel is looking at it," said Michael Roberts, president of Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit group appointed by the Clinton administration to establish rules for the Internet's addressing system. Icann received the complaints Friday.

Network Solutions said people misinterpreted the e-mail it sent delinquent name-holders to mean that the company would auction names to the highest bidder. "The names will be offered for whatever price is required to liquidate the debt," said Douglas Wolford, general manager of Network Solutions. "It might be less than the original price someone paid, but not more."

Network Solutions, though, is planning to keep the money from the auction and will not allow competitors to resell the names. Domain names - which double as Internet addresses - are issued for fees of $15 to $35 a year, depending on the registrar, but occasionally are resold for exorbitant prices.

Wolford said some recipients may have been confused because starting in July Network Solutions will begin auctioning some valid Internet addresses to the highest bidder, but those are owned by people who paid for them and may even have bought them from competing registrars.

In the e-mail it sent to delinquent account holders, the company said if the account was not paid in full by June 28, "we will enter the domain name in Network Solutions' new auction site. ... Any and all proceeds that we receive ... will be retained by Network Solutions, and your domain name will be transferred to the successful bidder."

Even if the price is limited to the amount of debt, some people said Network Solutions should not have the right to resell delinquent accounts without first putting them in the public domain where all registrars could sell them.

"It's an abuse of the registry system," said Elana Broitman, director of policy and public affairs for competitor "They should release the names."

"It's an inherently unfair thing to do," said Judith Oppenheimer, president of and a member of an Icann oversight group. "These names, having been registered before, are inherently of some value."

Network Solutions, which lost its government-sanctioned monopoly on issuing dot-com, dot-net and dot-org names last year, has been criticized in the past for not requiring upfront payment.

The policy allowed name "speculators" to reserve names simply to take them off the market and then not pay. In an agreement with Icann earlier this year, Network Solutions agreed to tighten its payment requirements. It is unclear how effective the crackdown has been and how many of the delinquent account holders may have registered under the old policy.

It is unclear how many domain names may be affected because Wolford said the company does not disclose its delinquent accounts. But clearly it is many thousands, if not millions: Network Solutions said in its 1999 annual report that 36.5 percent of all people who registered names with the company failed to pay. As of March 31, the company had registered more than 10 million of the 13 million domain names.

Also unclear is which owners might be affected. But the ranks of those who have forgotten to pay renewal fees in the past include Microsoft Corp. (it forgot to renew last year and an alert programmer spared the company a major embarrassment by paying the fee) and J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., whose Web site went on the blink this month because of a similar oversight.

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