New Zealand shows how to guard against domain name scoundrels

The latest ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) meeting, which was held in Morocco last week, heard about the dangers associated with the growing secondary market in domain name resale. It heard about two cases where a Cub Scout site and one for a women's refuge were, legitimately, acquired by pornographic website operators.

Such problems can arise when domain name owners don't keep their ownership up to date, allowing it lapse, albeit unwittingly sometimes.

A meeting of ICANN's security and stability advisory committee (SSAC) was told about the above cases. There would be clear "reputational damage" in such an acquisition, says committee staffer Dave Piscitello. But it is unclear what can be done. However, New Zealand's Domain Name Commissioner, Debbie Monahan, pointed to two measures that her office has put in place to assist in tackling this problem.

The New Zealand registry has a 90-day "pending release" period after a name has lapsed.

"In those 90 days, it's not pushed to the zone [made available]," Monahan told the meeting. "And the registrant, and only the registrant, can reinstate it at any stage in those 90 days."

This goes some way to allowing the recapture of a name that has unintentionally lapsed, she says. But, clearly, if the 90 days have elapsed then another party will be allowed to acquire the name. Even at this point, in New Zealand, a dispute resolution procedure could be brought into play should the former owner's reputation be at risk.

While domain name registration policy remains strictly "first-come first-served" in New Zealand, anyone who thinks they have a legitimate claim to a domain name can dispute a registration. If the dispute cannot be resolved by informal mediation it then goes to formal hearing. This is heard by an expert, whose decision is binding.

"We have taken our definition of rights to be broader than trademarks," Monahan told the meeting.

A lot of the country code, top level domain (ccTLD) operators with similar "open registration" processes have similar issues and have dealt with them similarly, says Monahan.

"But we try, through automatic renewal, rather than cancellation on the date, and the 90-day pending-release period to minimise [unexpected transfers of names] as much as possible."

There is a different problem with domain owners who run domain-nameservers for customers outside their own domain - many ISPs offer such a service.

If such an organisation, entrusted with name resolution rights for innocent parties' domains, went out of business, or mistakenly let its own domain name lapse, and its name was then snapped up by a malicious operator, there could dangers for downstream parties.

Attempts to access their sites could be re-routed to unsavoury sites or used for phishing attacks, says Piscitello. There is no foolproof solution, but there are ways to mitigate against this risk, he says.

"First ... if you are going to use a name service [from outside your network] you need someone in your organisation who is responsible for coordinating the name service with the operator of the [external] name server.

"The second [precaution] is that you ought to make certain that your organisation has accurate contact information, especially technical contact information, for any operator you have delegated your name service to."

And, says Piscitello, monitor the domain name service.

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