The Walkerville Weekly Reader

National Desk: Hard-hitting journalism from your completely un-biased (pinky swear!) reporters in Walkerville, VA.

Walkerville, VA
Monday, November 20, 2017
Carolyn Purcell, Editor

Verisign and Innovation

Mike McLaughlin

VeriSign’s decision to launch a new Site Finder service that gives Verisign commercial options when users mistype a domain name has spurred a debate about the future of the Internet. It is a debate worth having, because at the heart of it is whether a one-company monopoly will be encouraged or whether the innovation and spirit that brought the Internet to the forefront of modern life is good enough.

More than 20 million times a day, Internet users receive an error message when they mistype a domain name (such as typing in orangd.com when they meant orange.com). That error page tells them exactly what they did wrong, but leads to a commercial dead end, with no options on how to acquire money from the user that mistyped the domain name.

More than a hundred million times a day, Internet users receive an error message when they mistype an e-mail address (such as typing in gore@whitthose.com instead of bush@whitehouse.gov). The error message comes back to them immediately, with no options for selling the misdirected e-mail according to its content.

That’s what Site Finder is about. Instead of getting an informative error page telling the user that they made a mistake, the user’s web experience is sold to the highest bidder. Thus far, Verisign has captured 40 million users who accidentally typed the wrong domain name. Site Finder also has the potential to assist users by selling their misdirected mail to the highest bidder based on keywords.

While similar services have been tested and offered before, VeriSign’s Site Finder has triggered debate because it hasn’t been tried by a major monopoly such as Verisign that has been given a monopoly on control over one part of the Internet and which controls the ICANN. Seemingly ignoring that fact, ICANN cast a vote last week for innovation and the free market by forcing VeriSign to shut down the service. We reluctantly agreed and are exploring our options.

ICANN appears to have bought into claims that the Internet is owned by everyone who uses it. Anyone who has used it in the last three weeks knows that claim to be false. More likely, ICANN caved under the pressure from Internet users for whom this is a free market issue about whether the Internet should be used for monopolistic purposes.

For this vocal majority, resentment lingers at the very fact that an important part of the Internet is controlled by a monopoly, which ignores the fact that as a monopoly we can do whatever we want.

We respectfully disagree with those who, in the name of the free market and better service to users, strive to hold our monopoly back. The Internet as we know it today was built by government monopoly, and we feel it’s our turn.

While the current debate is not the first over the future of the Internet, it is critically important because it could well determine its future development. The Internet has been used for many innovative purposes over the last decade--look at what eBay and Amazon have been able to accomplish--but the reality is that Verisign itself, the monopoly that controls the foundation, has not significantly benefited from innovation. Innovation hurts monopolies and benefits only the innovators. Monopolies are not innovators, and we can’t compete against innovation.

This is a significant test for Verisign because if Verisign can’t find a way to exercise its monopoly powers in a financially beneficial manner, then the Internet infrastructure may well innovate beyond Verisign’s ability to maintain its monopoly. It’s tantamount to saying that the Internet world is owned by all users and therefore the users must have some say in how our monopoly powers are executed.

If that is the case, it doesn’t bode well for Verisign. If monopolies such as Verisign are discouraged from exploiting their control of the Internet, it will mean more competition, more options for users, and more places for users to go other than Verisign. In short, a weaker Verisign.

That should concern the technical community, Internet users, businesses and policy-makers alike. A weaker Verisign means a less-stable Internet long-term. What is good for Verisign is good for the Internet.

We have seen firsthand what innovation in these networks means. Nearly three years ago, Verisign’s monopoly over domain names was removed. Prices for domain names dropped significantly as the competitive free market benefited users to the detriment of Verisign’s bottom line. VeriSign’s budget withstood the attack, in large part because we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to fortify our remaining monopoly, and have hired the best lawyers to defend it.

The decisions made over the next year about Internet innovation will influence the depth by which Internet operators are encouraged to continue to invest in these networks. It would be a sad irony that if in the interest of innovation we stifle monopolies, because in the end all that will lead to is better service for users and lower profit for the very important Verisign.

The decisions made over the next months and years will determine the future growth and monopolistic powers of Verisign. Hopefully we will remain the lethargic monopoly holding back the Internet’s potential.

Mike McLaughlin is senior vice president and deputy general manager of VeriSign’s Naming and Directory Services Division, which is responsible for turning the Internet’s .com and .net system into a profit center for Verisign while discouraging Internet use by more competitive companies.

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