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.
Enough with the nostalgia. This week, network and system administrators all over the Net got a cold dash of water splashed in their faces reminding them that times have changed. On Monday, VeriSign, the company in charge of administering the .com and .net domain name hierarchies, made some changes to how the Net works. The company jiggered the domain name system so that everyone who types in a misspelled or otherwise nonexistent Web address (ending in .com or .net) is redirected to a new VeriSign search portal, instead of getting an error report.
There were, however, no requests for comments, possibly because VeriSign wasn't interested in hearing the screams of pain that would result. According to the squawks of outrage in various forums populated by people who make their living administering ISPs or otherwise handling Internet data streams, Verisign broke a bunch of stuff.
The domain name system is a basic piece of Net infrastructure that is relied upon by many other pieces. To take just one example, many spam-filtering systems will check first to see if incoming mail originated at a valid domain name. If the domain name doesn't exist, it's probably spam, and it can be jettisoned. But right now, the new VeriSign system has ensured that every possible .com and .net domain name is suddenly valid, a fact that is giving spam-filtering programs a major headache.
There's no mystery why VeriSign made the changes. Millions of people mistype domain names every day. That's a big traffic stream, which VeriSign is now channeling to its own Web servers, where it can do all kinds of creative things, like expose people to advertisements, market its own services, et cetera. It's not a new tactic. Other domain name registrars have tried similar things, and Microsoft and AOL both have their own versions of the strategy that work at the Web browser level -- or used to, before VeriSign redesigned the system.
The difference is that VeriSign is entrusted by the U.S. government and ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to administer the two most important domain name hierarchies, .com and .net.
There has been tussling for years over whether it is appropriate for any private company to have a monopoly over vital portions of the Internet infrastructure. Usually, the critics get shouted down by apologists for free enterprise who believe the market can do a better job of running the Net than the government or the collaborative community of engineers who helped build it.
Well, it's time to start shouting again. This week's actions by VeriSign underline exactly why some things are just too important to be left to people whose main concern is finding new revenue streams and boosting stock prices.