October 31, 2005

ICANN+Verisign == Fishy * 3

There's something very fishy about the new ICANN-Versign Agreements: internet users get scrod three different ways.

First we get scrod in the pocketbook.  Even though we get no say in either ICANN or in this contract, we, the community of internet users, are going to have to pay higher domain name fees.  The new built-in rate of inflation will compound at 7% per year on top of an already absurdly high base.

Second we get scrod in the stockroom.  The new contract gives Verisign the explicit green light to data mine the domain name queries that hit its servers.

You might be thinking - huh, data mining?  What you probably do not realize is that every time you enter a URL into a web browser, send an e-mail, or make a VOIP phone call the entire domain name part of the address goes into DNS and very frequently makes it all the way to Verisign's servers.  The contract lets Verisign capture those domain names and your source IP address so that Verisign can know that you have been visiting the website of www.hampsters_n_ductape.com every night after the kids have gone to bed.

(Not every query will go to Verisign's servers - many will be handled by local caches in resolvers near the users.  But with enough samples, and on the internet samples can accumulate very quickly, Verisign will be able to use statistical methods to generate rather revealing profiles of trends in mass and, with more work, preferences of individuals.)

The contract gives Versign the right to develop a real-time data mining feed of a value that can not be easily overestimated.  Verisign, for example, can develop marketing data about the effectiveness of URL's in TV advertisements during sports games while the game is still in progress.  The data mining ability now granted to Verisign by ICANN will allow Verisign to recognize almost instantly "what's hot and what's not".  Advertisers and marketers are willing to pay big bucks for this kind of information.  It's not only a potential gold mine for Verisign but it's also a large step in the transformation of the internet into nothing but a giant advertisement and internet users into nothing but consumers.

But wait, there's more!  The real-time data mining capability that ICANN is giving to Verisign can also be used by governmental reconnaissance agencies.  The flow of domain name queries is a kind of "chatter" which one can blend with other data sources to construct interesting intelligence.  And whether intelligence is considered valuable very much depends on whether you are the observer or the observed.

And third, we get scrod in the waiting room.  The new agreement imposes a plethora of service level obligations on Verisign for the benefit of domain name registrars and intellectual property lawyers digging through the privacy-busting whois.  But the agreement imposes no similar service obligations on Verisign to provide accurate and prompt performance of the primary job of the domain name system - domain name queries.  In other words, the contract subordinates the thing that internet users need - prompt and accurate domain name resolution - and elevates secondary concerns.  The message is clear - ICANN has obligated Verisign to provide first class service to registrars and intellectual property lawyers while sending the interests of internet users into steerage.

To paraphrase Grouch Marx from Cocoanuts: "You can have any kind of a contract you want.  You can even get scrod.  Oh, how you can get scrod."

Posted by karl at October 31, 2005 11:40 PM