Is Network Solutions just being aggressive?

You'd think, now that Network Solutions Inc. (NSI) has lost its domain registration monopoly, it might be a little less arrogant and a little more customer-sensitive than in the past. But reports to The Gripe Line indicate that would be wishful thinking.

NSI has always been one of the most consistent contributors of grist for the Gripe mill, and this constancy has not slackened since the company was taken over by VeriSign Inc. The litany of complaints about questionable marketing practices, billing foul-ups, and unresponsive service continues unabated. Fortunately for me, what might otherwise be predictable monotony is relieved by the company's unique gift for putting new twists on old problems.

One recent example is the number of readers who took up NSI/VeriSign on a recent promotional offer to renew their domain names for 10 years at a discounted total price of US$210. After completing the renewal form on the NSI Web site, they received an e-mail notification that their renewal exceeded the maximum allowable limit; so their domain was instead renewed for nine years at a cost of $252. Try as they might via e-mail, phone, and fax, readers were unable to get this changed back to the price they'd been promised.

What's going on here? "The maximum renewal term is 10 years including their current registration term," a VeriSign spokeswoman explained. "So if they have even one day left prior to their expiration date, the maximum term they're allowed to renew for is nine [years]. We realize that 99 percent will fall into this category and have adjusted the Web site and discount accordingly."

So it was just a silly glitch, and now it's been fixed. What remains remarkable about it, however, is the total inability of NSI to do anything to help customers who were complaining about the problem. Some readers were told the only solution was to dispute the charge with their credit card company and then sign up for the renewal again on the exact day their current registration expired.

Phantom discounts also play a part in another beef readers have had with NSI. For several months some customers of other domain registrars have received a mailing on NSI letterhead that warns in large type at the top, "The domain name you secured for your Web site is up for renewal soon. Switch to Network Solutions, and you'll save $20." The carefully worded letter goes on to tell recipients that NSI is the original registrar and that "losing your domain name would be like losing your phone number."

The VeriSign spokeswoman says the promotion is fair and honest. "We are careful to identify that we are sending the offer, that they do not need to pay," she says. "It's clearly a 'switch to Network Solutions' promotion."

But some readers say the letter's dire warnings about imminent loss of one's domain is designed to fool the unwary into thinking they do indeed have to pay. It's not so much recipients themselves who have complained but ISPs, Web developers, and others who do a lot of domain registrations for clients. Customers whose domain names were not actually due to expire for many months and/or those who could renew with their current registrar for less than NSI's $20 discount were spooked by the letter.

"People and companies receive these notices in the mail and sign off on them, thinking that they are legitimate registration notices," wrote an IT consultant. "They'll go to someone in the [accounts payable] department who doesn't know a domain name from a donut, and suddenly they're not only paying more, but it could conceivably damage the existing infrastructure with regard to updates and accountability.

"That NSI can implement a business model that can succeed only through misinformation and preying on the uninformed is shameful."

Where the NSI letter falls on the border between aggressive marketing and underhanded chicanery -- if there is such a border -- is a debatable point. What I find interesting, though, is that NSI/VeriSign really seems to be taking advantage of some of the rules put in place to keep it from running roughshod over other registrars. The reason NSI can get other registrars' customer addresses is an Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) "bulk access" rule that requires registrars to make their Whois data available to one another for set fees. Although spamming one another's customers is forbidden, sending them regular mail isn't.

And neither are other uses of the Whois contact information. Using my vast experience with NSI gripes, I predict the next chapter of this running chronology: One day in the not-so-distant future I'll pick up the phone to hear, "Hello, Network Solutions calling. Do you realize your domain name is about to expire?"

Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Contact InfoWorld's reader advocate, Ed Foster, at gripe@infoworld.com.

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