Domain Registry of America still slamming, still scamming

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2011, Domain Registrars

Domain name slamming is alive and well in the ICANN-accredited registrar community.

I’ve just received a letter in the mail offering me the chance to transfer and renew domainincite.com for the knock-down price of £25 ($38) a year.

It’s Domain Registry of America again, still slamming almost a decade after it was first sued for the completely unethical practice of conning people into transferring their domain names.

Domain Renewal GroupThe letter looks like a renewal notice. Besides ostensibly coming from “Domain Renewal Group”, it also contains the prominent text “Domain Name Renewal Service”.

Domain Renewal Group and Domain Registry of America are one and the same – fronts for the ICANN-accredited registrar Brandon Gray Internet Services Inc, dba NameJuice.com.

The letter, as you can see from the scan, is a little less bogus than the ones DROA started sending out back in 2001. The text states now much more clearly that “this is not a bill”.

But domain slamming has always relied upon people not reading the letter properly and/or not understanding the intricacies of domain transfers, and this is no different.

DROA’s business depends upon its letters finding their way into the hands of gullible individual registrants or accounting departments that will blindly pay official-looking notices.

At the prices the company charges – pretty much the most expensive in the industry – very few people will have transferred their domains because they thought they were getting a good deal.

There have been numerous complaints and lawsuits against DROA over the last decade.

In November 2009, the UK Advertising Standards Agency found DROA in breach of truthfulness and honesty guidelines for a substantially similar mailshot and ruled:

The mailing must not appear again in its current form.

And last year, the .ca registry CIRA terminated Domain Registry of Canada, another Brandon Gray front, for slamming .ca registrants using the same methods.

So isn’t it about time ICANN shut these muppets down too?

Unfortunately, ICANN can only use contracts to enforce compliance, and I’m not sure there are any sticks in the 2001 Registrar Accreditation Agreement that it can use to beat them.

DROA has plainly breached Go Daddy’s Whois access policy by slamming me (the letter was sent to my Whois billing address, not my actual residence), but I don’t think there’s much Go Daddy can do about that short of suing.

As far as I can tell, Brandon Gray, which has about 130,000 domains under management, got its ICANN accreditation in about 2003. It was previously an eNom reseller.

So its accreditation is probably going to be up for renewal within the next couple of years.

Fortunately, ICANN has just this week introduced stricter new accreditation application rules that are specifically designed to weed out the scumbags.

Any company or individual with a track record of dishonesty is no longer welcome at ICANN.

So if there’s nothing that can be done before then, at the very least when Brandon Gray’s accreditation expires ICANN should not renew it.

What’s more, other registrars should lean on ICANN to make sure Brandon Gray is shown the door. It’s been bringing their industry into disrepute for the best part of a decade and it’s time for it to stop.

Could VeriSign be banned from new TLDs?

Kevin Murphy, May 28, 2011, Domain Policy

Governments have proposed stricter background checks on new top-level domain operators that could capture some of the industry’s biggest players.

Top-five registrar Network Solutions and .com manager VeriSign may have reason to be concerned by the latest batch of Governmental Advisory Committee recommendations.

The GAC wants checks on new gTLD applicants expanded to include not only criminal convictions and intellectual property violations but also government orders related to consumer fraud.

The GAC advised ICANN, with my emphasis:

The GAC believes that the categories of law violations that will be considered in the background screening process must be broadened to include court or administrative orders for consumer protection law violations. If an applicant has been subject to a civil court or administrative order for defrauding consumers, it should not be permitted to operate a new gTLD.

This is not new – the GAC has proposed similar provisions before – but it seems to be the only GAC advice on applicant screening that ICANN has not yet adopted, and the GAC is still pushing for it.

Why could VeriSign and NetSol be worried by this?

One reason that springs to mind is that, back in 2003, NetSol was officially barred by the US Federal Trade Commission from the practice known as “domain slamming”.

Domain slamming, you may recall, was one of the dirtiest “marketing” tactics employed by the registrar sector during the early days of competition.

Registrars would send fake invoices with titles such as “Renewal and Transfer Notice” to the addresses of their rivals’ customers, mined from Whois data.

The letters were basically tricks designed to persuade customers ignorant of the domain name lifecycle to transfer their business to the slamming registrar.

Respectable registrars have nothing to do with such practices nowadays, but a decade ago companies including NetSol and Register.com, the two largest registrars at the time, were all over it.

At the time NetSol was carrying out its slamming campaign, it was part of VeriSign. It was spun off into a separate company earlier in 2003, before the FTC entered its order.

The order (pdf) was approved by a DC judge as part of a deal that settled an FTC civil lawsuit, alleging deceptive practices, against the company.

NetSol was not fined and did not admit liability, but it did agree to be permanently enjoined from any further slamming, and had to file compliance notices for some time afterward.

It seems plausible that this could fall into the definition of a “civil court or administrative order for defrauding consumers” that the GAC wants added to the Applicant Guidebook’s background checks.

Whether the GAC’s advice, if implemented by ICANN, would capture NetSol and/or VeriSign is of course a matter of pure speculation at the moment.

I think it’s highly unlikely that ICANN would put something in the Guidebook that banned VeriSign, its single largest source of funding (over a quarter of its revenue) from the new gTLD program.

Sadly, I think I may also be unfairly singling out these two firms here – I’d be surprised if they’re the only companies in the domain name industry with this kind of black mark against their names.

Existing background checks in the Applicant Guidebook governing cybersquatting are already thought to pose potential problems for registrars including eNom and Go Daddy.

UPDATE: It looks like NSI and VeriSign are probably safe.