Editor’s note: Hanah Metchisis a research analyst for the Project on Technology and Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

WASHINGTON,The way some people tell it, the Internet was broken for three weeks in late September and early October. Did you notice?

Usually, when a user types in a URL with a domain name that does not exist — whether due to a spelling mistake, an expired site registration, or a wrong guess — the DNS server returns an error message: “Sorry, this domain name does not exist.”

VeriSign, the company that manages the registry of all domain names ending in .com and .net, decided to change the error-handling to create a more user-friendly process.

On Sept. 15, VeriSign launched a service called SiteFinder, which displayed a proprietary search engine instead of an error message when an unregistered domain name was entered in a web browser. It may have been useful to everyday users, but the implementation of this redirect service caused headaches for network administrators and ulcers for officials at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). On Oct. 3, in response to pressure from ICANN and other groups, SiteFinder was shut down. But VeriSign says it will relaunch the service after further study.

Web heartburn

The technical problem is that all kinds of programs — not just web browsers — rely on the DNS servers to tell them when a domain name does not exist. SiteFinder made it look like all domains existed, since either the expected page or the SiteFinder page was returned, never an error message. This confused some e-mail programs, which started responding to typos in e-mail addresses as “No such user” instead of “No such domain name,” until VeriSign updated their system shortly after the original launch. And it rendered ineffective some types of anti-spam filters, which block all messages from nonexistent domain names. Network administrators scrambled to write software patches that would route around these and other errors, but many of the fixes caused problems of their own.

VeriSign was not the first company to realize that for most end users, a search engine would be more useful than an error message.

In fact, several companies had already been operate redirect services for mistyped domain names, and selling ads on the search pages. Entering a misspelled domain while using AOL or Microsoft’s Internet Explorer directs the user to search sites set up by those companies. Yet these services only kick in once the software receives the usual error message from VeriSign. When SiteFinder launched, VeriSign’s search service preempted those created by other companies and created a huge revenue source for VeriSign.

New technologies and new applications sometimes make change of the underlying Internet protocols desirable or necessary. The Internet technical community has standard methods for discussing and implementing such changes, which in the past have operated on a consensus basis. But the organizations with the power to make the actual changes, such as VeriSign, have no enforceable obligation to consult with the community before implementing a new service, like SiteFinder. VeriSign’s changes to the DNS operations changed only longstanding custom; they were compatible with published standards documents.

Who’s in charge?

The SiteFinder episode showed that the consensus process for Internet governance is not flawless. Consensus seems to have prevailed for the moment, since VeriSign agreed to ICANN’s recommendation to suspend SiteFinder. But VeriSign plans to revive the service at its own choosing, which would upset the current consensus. To many, the prospect of a single company having the power to make a unilateral change is troubling.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the consensus process is that it looks like a power vacuum, into which the ambitious may rush. Replacing the current model with a top-down system could be just as bad, or even worse. A likely candidate for that authority would be ICANN, which has its own serious accountability problems. And some nations have even proposed putting the Internet under the control of the U.N., which could have disastrous effects. The consensus model may not function very quickly or efficiently. But at least it recognizes the importance of multiple perspectives on an issue. For now, the current process may be the best solution.

CEI: www.cei.org

C:\SPIN is produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute