Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Domain Theft

May 2005

By Mike Gould

Much has been written lately about identity theft. Phishing, Pharming, and other Phiendish scams and ploys abound. Hopefully, you've read my articles, and others about this topic, and are forewarned about the ways you can lose your good name. But there is another, lesser-known danger you should be aware of: losing your domain.

No, I'm not talking about your castle, serfs and villages (although they may be at risk as well, what with all this rampant democracy going around these days), I'm talking about losing your Internet domain: that word people type in if they want to visit you on the web (If your URL is http://www.coolbiz.com, coolbiz.com is your domain). That's right, you can lose the rights to your own website in certain circumstances. Read on:

Can I See Some Registration?
To understand how this can happen, let's review some of the nuts and bolts that hold together the towering edifice we call reality, er, I mean, the Internet. (Seems that way, sometimes, though. See The Matrix.) The following, as with most technical journalism, is somewhat complicated, while being at the same time a gross oversimplification. But it is important to understand if you are going to put your business on the web. (Please don't try surfing to any of the URLs, domains, or IP addresses below; all have been changed to protect the Internet.)

Your website is hosted by an ISP, who provides the computer on whose hard drive the files making up your site reside. The ISP provides an Internet address for your site, which looks like this: 10.011.101.11 - also called the IP (Internet Protocol) address. The ISP assigns you your IP address from the bank of numbers it has available, and tells the world at large: "Yo, world, I got your 10.011.101.11 website right here". Sort of like the ISP is your landlord, and he is renting you an apartment and providing an address.

This is where it gets interesting: the computers that run the Internet generally don't know from domains, all they know is IP addresses. But who wants to be known as 10.011.101.11? Nobody, that's why there is a registration process that associates 10.011.101.11 with coolbiz.com. This is called DNS - Domain Name Service (or Server). That is the gist of the issue here: there is an administrative difference between the address, which is provided by your ISP, and the domain name (coolbiz.com) which is listed by an Internet registrar.

"So what's an Internet Registrar?", I hear you ask, scratching your head (which is beginning to throb just a little with all this techno-hash being slung around - but stay with me here, we're almost through with the hard part). The registrar is like a phone book; it associates a name (coolbiz.com) with an address (10.011.101.11). And like a phone book, there are a number of them out there, all in competition. Once a registrar has you in its address list, it is loathe to relinquish you, as your registration fee is the registrar's revenue source.

Here's the sequence: you fire up your browser and type coolbiz.com into your address bar. Your browser sends a request to your ISP, saying "I want to visit coolbiz.com". The ISP's computer at the other end of your connection looks to see where coolbiz.com might be. It consults its local DNS server, saying, "Hiya; you got a coolbiz.com listed in that list of DNS entries you downloaded from the Internet last night?" The local DNS server says "Um, lemme check... coola, coolac, coolbiz, got it; send the request to 10.011.101.11". Your request zips off and in moments a web page is returned to your computer's browser.

Fabled Tables
When you first sign up with an ISP, a request will be submitted to a registrar that your domain name be added to the domain lists. You go to a registrar such as GoDaddy and check to see if the domain you want is available. If so, you can register with them and reserve your place on the Web. Some ISPs also provide DNS registration services themselves; it's always a good idea to check for this when you are shopping for an ISP, as it makes the whole registration process easier.

The most important thing about this registration business is that you can only register for a fixed period of time, usually 1 to 5 years. Once the registration period is up, if you don't renew the registration to your domain, it becomes available to anyone. Including bottom-feeder domain hijackers and that brings us to the exciting start of our tale.

A Host of Troubles
Once upon a time, when the web was young, I used to recommend to my clients that they sign up with ISP X. As the years went by, ISP X got bought by ISP Y, who sold out to ISP Z. X did a pretty good job of running things, Y was mediocre and Z was as terrible a web landlord as you would want to deal with. My client, we'll call him MC, went through the X-Y-Z progression, and finally bailed, ending up with a good local outfit, ISP P.

But, alas, his registration was handled by the Orc, an evil registrar who got involved back in the ISP Y days. MC tried to get his registration switched over to ISP P (who handled their own registration business), but the Orc refused, demanding a great ransom. Because of the lame way the X-Y-Z deal went down, MC was at the mercy of the Orc. When it came time to renew the registration, ISP P told MC to let the registration lapse, and ISP P would grab it as soon as it became available, restoring complete control back to MC. Alas, an evil hijacker, we'll call him Sauron, managed to grab and register the domain ahead of ISP P, and Sauron now controls the gateway to MC's site, effectively locking him out of his own domain. If you go to mc.com, you get a blank page, even though the site is up and running at ISP P. If you go to 10.101.010.11 you can get to the site, but the mc.com domain is currently lost, captured and presumably held for ransom by the evil Sauron.

Whew! But there is hope: an international court of appeals exists to mediate this sort of evil. But I am out of space, and must leave you with this cyber-cliffhanger. Next month: The Umpire Strikes Back.

Big thanks to Internet guru David ("You just surf the 'net; I live there") Bloom of Factotem.com, who helped me out with technical details and metaphorization.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler and digital photographer for the U of M, runs MondoDyne Web Works, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes visitors to his website at www.mondodyne.com.

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