The Verisign / Site Finder thing, explained

Suppose while typing the URL for this blog, you missed the “o” key and typed “blgware” instead of “blogware”. Until today, you’d get an error message because the domain “” doesn’t exist.

That changed today. Here, try visiting You no longer get an error message, but a search engine page.

The page you get is Site Finder, a search page owned by Verisign. Verisign is the 800-pound gorilla of the internet, a for-profit company that by virtue of buying Network Solutions, who were originally in charge of domain name assignment, are in charge of all domain names that end with “.com” or “.net”. Every registrar pays Verisign a fee for every .com and .net domain name they register.

(Full disclosure: my employer is Tucows, Inc. and it is, among other things, a domain name registrar.)

Now they’re using their monopoly power over internet’s infrastructure to generate profit. One of the companies providing the search engine technology for Site Finder is Overture, which is a “paid placement” search engine: advertisers bid for placement in their search engine and pay each time their search result is clicked. According to this article, Verisign stands to make about US$100 million per year off Site Finder.

This is probably going to break a lot of software. While error messages aren’t necessarily pretty, a lot of software that accesses the ‘net uses the “there’s no domain by that name” error as its cue that a given domain name does not exist. Electronic Frontier Foundation Chairman Brad Templeton says:

E-mail delivery will be interfered with. Scores of other applications will also break. In some cases, there will be security problems, where users running applications that should have given them an error now connect them to a distant Internet site.

Worse still is the fact that Verisign, probably anticipating the outcry, didn’t give anyone much warning that they were going to pull this stunt. This, as Salon’s Andrew Leonard observes, is not the way things are normally done:

Once upon a time, when engineers were considering making major changes to the way the Internet worked, they asked other engineers whether what they were proposing was a good idea. They even came up with a nifty way to solicit feedback, the “Request for Comments” system. If you had a good idea, you would write it up, post an RFC to the Net, and then enjoy the fun as the proposal was constructively ripped to shreds.

This was a good thing. For example, if implementing your proposal would have ended up breaking parts of the Net, your colleagues would get the chance to tell you, instead of discovering all the wreckage after the fact.

There is a fix in the works. The ISC (Internet Software Consortium) is going to distribute a patch to BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Domain, software used to convert domain names into numerical internet addresses) that blocks Site Finder. To paraphrase a classic line about the internet, it will see Site Finder as damage and route around it.

Want to find out a little more about what all this techno hoo-hah means? Check these out…



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