Google's chances to obtain dotless 'http://search' domain are shrinking

Dotless Internet domains are likely to confuse users, ICANN-affiliated committees say

Google's chances of obtaining the "http://search" domain name are shrinking after several committees affiliated with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently warned that dotless domain names could be harmful to the Internet.

Over the weekend, the Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF) issued the latest advisory about dotless domains, saying, among other things, that application protocols may have trouble processing them. Earlier in the week, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) issued its own warning about dotless domain names.

Google has shown interest in the dotless "http://search" domain in a letter sent to the ICANN board in April, in which it requested permission to expand its application for ".search" to run that generic top-level domain (gTLD) as a dotless domain. The letter was sent by the Charleston Road Registry, which Google owns.

"Google intends to operate a redirect service on the 'dotless' .search domain (http://search/) that, combined with a simple technical standard will allow a consistent query interface across firms that provide search functionality, and will enable users to easily conduct searches with firms that provide the search functionality that they designate as their preference," Google said in the letter.

However, if domains like this were to be used, they would not work as intended by Top Level Domain (TLD) operators in the vast majority of cases, the IAB said in an advisory published last week in which it strongly discouraged the use of these domain types.

In a standard system setup as recommended by the IETF, dotless domain names could be used as shortcuts to hosts within a local administration, the IAB said. They could be used, for example, for an intranet zone.

Users do not expect to be referred to the Internet when they enter a dotless domain, the IAB added.

Because dotless domains will not behave consistently they are potentially confusing for Internet users and can erode the stability of the global DNS, the IAB said.

They also cause security risks. "By attempting to change expected behavior, dotless domains introduce potential security vulnerabilities. These include causing traffic intended for local services to be directed onto the global Internet (and vice-versa), which can enable a number of attacks, including theft of credentials and cookies, cross-site scripting attacks, etc. As a result, the deployment of dotless domains has the potential to cause significant harm to the security of the Internet," according to the IAB.

Therefore, dotless domains should not be used at all. "In summary, the IAB believes that the current IETF recommendations against the use of dotless domains are important to the continued viability and success of the Internet, and strongly recommends that the Internet community strictly adhere to them," it said.

The IAB reached the same conclusion that the ICANN Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC) came to last February. The SSAC's report was one of the sources used for the IAB's advisory.

"Dotless domains will not be universally reachable and the SSAC recommends strongly against their use," the SSAC concluded in its report at the time.

Sending email to dotless domains would be a problem because, for example, standard-compliant mail servers would reject messages to addresses such as user@brand, the SSAC said.

The SSAC also warned of security risks: "For example, until very recently most Certificate Authorities would issue a Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) certificate for any dotless hostname with no validation (under the assumption that such hostnames, by definition, were not globally reachable). If dotless domains are allowed, these historical Certificate Authority Issuance practices pose a significant security risk to the privacy and integrity of HTTPS communications," the SSAC warned.

In its own memo, dated July 13, the IETF concluded that implementations of application protocols can exhibit unexpected behavior in processing dotless domains.

Dotless domains also do not fit "within the rule of least surprise," the IETF said. "The rule of least surprise is a principle which states that it is better to always do the less surprising thing," it said.

The IETF however only looks at technical mechanisms. Whether dotless domains are harmful is a policy matter, the IETF said in the memo.

The memo is also an Internet Draft document that expires in January 2014. Internet Drafts are IETF working documents that are valid for a maximum of six months and may be updated, replaced, or made obsolete by other documents at any time, so they must be seen as a "work in progress," the IETF said.

A Google spokesman reached on Monday did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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