Down but not (locked) out: Domain owner fights for name

When Phillip Pudney chose to buy his domain name from an internationally accredited registrar, he thought he'd be safe from the scams and trickery suffered by some domain name owners. He was wrong.

Pudney signed with TotalNIC, an Australian registrar accredited by the Australian Domain Administration (auDA) and the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

"I found them from a link on the ICANN Web site," said the South Australian network engineer. "I thought, 'I'll get one that's accredited and that's Australian so I can call someone if I have any questions.'"

The cut-price rates were attractive, and Pudney registered his .net domain.

When TotalNIC increased its rates some time later, though, Pudney decided to transfer his domain name to another registrar.

"At the beginning of May I started shopping around and decided I would renew the domain with PlanetDomain," he said.

He started the transfer process, only to be informed by PlanetDomain that his current registrar had 'locked' the domain.

Pudney contacted TotalNIC to ask about his locked domain, but received no response.

A week later, he tried again. This time he received a response.

"[They said] TotalNIC automatically places locks on domain names due to 'security reasons', and that I had to sign the attached legal contract, have it notarised, and post it to a PO Box in Canberra," said Pudney.

Pudney's follow-up queries to TotalNIC about this practice were met with silence.

Despite this, he followed TotalNIC's requests and sent the letter.

The lock remained. Pudney contacted TotalNIC again, only to be told the company hadn't received the form. Subsequent calls and e-mails received no response.

Pudney then reported TotalNIC to ICANN, the body responsible for top-level domains. ICANN failed to reply.

With his domain due for renewal in weeks, "[I had] no choice but to renew my domain with [TotalNIC] or risk losing it," he said.

However, last-minute media intervention triggered a response from TotalNIC, and Pudney's domain name was unlocked.

Pudney is not the only TotalNIC customer to think badly of the company. Complaints about the registrar have littered the Internet for several years.

PC World's calls to TotalNIC for comment on this story resulted only in disconnected numbers and answering machines.

Until recently, the authorities that accredit TotalNIC -- auDA, ICANN -- have only e-mailed customer complaints to the registrar.

auDA had not received "anything other than isolated complaints until relatively recently", according to chief executive Chris Disspain.

TotalNIC only became an auDA accredited registrar in 2002, he said.

It was the responsibility of the respective country's domain name authority, not ICANN, to investigate complaints, said Disspain.

In the case of TotalNIC, however, the complaints auDA received related to the generic top level domain (gTLD), said Disspain. auDA only governs the .au, second level domain. The gTLD is controlled by ICANN.

Therefore, not until auDA received complaints from customers in its jurisdiction did it have reason to act on gTLD issues, said Disspain.

In March, auDA took the unprecedented step of requesting documents about TotalNIC's gTLD operations from Capital Networks, the holding company. This was the first time auDA had requested such documents from an Australian registrar, said Disspain.

Capital Networks refused. auDA told Capital its .au accreditation would be suspended if the documents were not provided.

Late last month, Capital took auDA to court. Capital claimed auDA's threats were misleading and deceptive as auDA was limited to .au matters, and had no authority over gTLD issues.

According to court documents, Justice Bennett found that while evidence by TotalNIC director Edward Sweeney claimed the company operated both gTLD and .au domain name services, there was "little evidence of the operation of that [.au] business at all".

The court also heard TotalNIC had not informed auDA that the ACCC was seeking information from it following customer complaints.

auDA's legal representatives argued that since auDA's constitution states obligations to users of Internet services based in Australia, this included gTLD activities in Australia.

Justice Bennett dismissed Capital's application, and said auDA was entitled to suspend Capital.

Capital has since provided auDA with gTLD documents, and any action against the registrar will be taken only once auDA has reviewed those documents, Disspain said.

He declined to say when this review would be completed, as this was dependent on Capital providing more documents.

Should TotalNIC's .au accreditation be suspended, however, this would not necessarily entail the suspension of its gTLD accreditation, he said.

In the interim, Capital remains an auDA and ICANN accredited registrar.

Disspain admitted customer confidence in the accreditation system had been damaged by the TotalNIC saga, but said auDA was committed to resolving the situation quickly.

However, Pudney said he learned the hard way. "Just because a registrar is ICANN-accredited, it doesn't mean that they are reputable."

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Steven Deare

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