Who owns your domain name? You? “Pretty sure” is not good enough. Let’s find out. This article discusses issues that small businesses fall prey to with their domain names, using a fictitious but very common scenario.

Domain names sit between the real world we live in and the virtual world which houses virtual assets that bring real value to users – websites and communications. Users do not really “own” domain names. Instead, users buy a license which exclusively reserves a title for their exclusive use for a fixed term – say, one year. This licensing is managed by organisations which operate within a self regulating framework which are charged with managing domains that fall under a given “extension”. For instance, .uk domains are managed by an Oxford, UK based organisation called Nominet. In turn, Nominet delegates responsibilities to a network of suppliers who interface directly with the public. .com domains are managed by a variety of registrars, but the principle is the same.

coca cola public registration record

A public search at Nominet’s Whois shows that Coca Cola has paid careful attention to its .co.uk registration record.

The public generally does not know the specialist language needed to deal with how domain names work, so usually a domain name is “owned” by a an individual or other entity, and the administrative conduct for the daily management of that domain is delegated to an administrative user.

In the small and mid-sized business worlds, most website owners delegate administrative conduct, or “admin rights” for the management of their domain names to their website designer or perhaps network engineers who handle the organisation’s computer networks and email services.

Quite often, web designers are only interested in enabling a website. When instructed to act for a domain name owner, website designers organise a domain name via their facility, and carry on. On occasion, web designers take administrative custody of an existing domain name if it already exists and move the domain name into the facility where they hold other users’ domain names, and then carry on. From the designer’s standpoint, the domain is “working” because the website is working and without more consideration than that, domain names might be considered to be commodities. as far as the domain name is concerned, the file is closed.

The domain name bites back

This is where a potentially fatal problem lurks. When bringing a domain into a web designer’s portfolio one way or another, the ownership record attaching to the domain name can default the record to show that the owner, or “registrant”, is the same entity as the administrative contact.

So, what happens when a domain name records the registrant and the admin contact as the same entity? The website works, and email works too. What of it?

Consider a fictitious example that reflects a real world situation. Take the case of Bob, who sells chainsaws online at www.bobs-chainsaws.co.uk. Having instructed his web designer to build a website, the designer procured a domain name called bobs-chainsaws.co.uk as part of the deal. The designer had a convenient facility with a domain name reseller caled 3-2-1 Domains where the designer sourced .uk, .co.uk, .com domains. The designer logged into his 3-2-1 account, secured bobs-chainsaws.co.uk, and pointed the domain to the web server where Bob’s web site would run. We will leave email out of this for simplicity. Now, this facility was casually arranged when the designer was just starting out with his ambitions, and the designer’s account at 3-2-1 was really intended for domain name owners who own and manage perhaps a few domain names rather than an outright wholesale registry facility, so this kind of streamlined process is designed to register domains as if the designer is the domain name owner.

Critically, bobs-chainsaws.co.uk is registered to show that the web site designer is the owner, not Bob. The designer considered the domain was Bob’s, and billed him for it occasionally, or perhaps included its ongoing cost in a broader management arrangement covering website support, so this way Bob never had much to do with the domain.

Time goes on, the web site worked, and eventually Bob decided to spend more money to expand his shop to synchronise it with his Facebook business page. Nobody payed attention to the outstanding detail of ownership.

This brings us to the present, when, one day, the web designer leaves town. Perhaps his business collapsed, or he leaves to do something else. Or maybe he goes out of business, and 3-2-1 Domains goes out of business too, but for simplicity, again we will keep things simple.

malt house antiques public registration record

Malt House Antique’s public record shows a different story that Coca Cola’s example above. Apart from losing a professional touch, the owner could be at risk.

Bob is about to get a defining education about the difference between registrants and administrative contacts. The designer handled annual web hosting provisioning in his deal with Bob. Bob never knew about that provision though because he left it to the designer. Now, the designer has moved on, and because he has not paid the hardware supplier for the web server renewal that Bob’s web site runs on, that supplier turns the server off. As if that is not hard enough for a Dick Tracy to fathom, the domain name – bobs-chainsaws.co.uk – is coincidentally due for renewal. The web designer is not interested in renewing domain names any more, so Nominet is not paid, and the domain is suspended.

Like most lessons learned in IT, they are learned in the face of catastrophe. There is no middle ground when IT fails. We know technology fails, sometimes because of technology, but sometimes because of people too. Either way, the IT industry exists not so much to develop technology, but to fix it. Bob did not understand how websites and domain names work. He just understood that once things were live they just “kind of” worked rather like a wing and a prayer, like so many do.

In this case, bobs-chainsaws.co.uk, has been running for four or five years, long enough to have a track record and a recognised name at Google. The website champions an online store selling a few hundred thousand pounds of equipment. Or, at least it did. Now, website visitors get “error 404 – this page does not exist”. The website is gone.

The owner cannot buy the domain name again because it is in run off – Nominet hold un-renewed domain names for 90 days. Even that can be fixed, but not if you do not own your domain. Bob, wearing his business owner hat has the presence of mind to call Nominet who are very helpful, except that bobs-chainsaws.co.uk’s ownership record shows that the web designer is the registrant, the owner. Nominet is obliged to act for the web designer and cannot recognise Bob’s interest without formalities which cost time. Without the web designer to sign off ownership, Bob is losing emails and sales, and customers are going elsewhere because his web site is no longer there. Nominet are not being awkward – their contract is emphatically with the registrant. They are doing as their contract requires.

Bob contacts a specialist in these kinds of things, and finds out there is no good ending. Bob still must find the web designer, or lose his Google rankings and email contacts by getting an alternative domain name. Putting aside the issue of where the files are to restore Bob’s website, potentially the erstwhile web designer could use bobs-chainsaws.co.uk for his own purposes or even sell it to someone else. Without the domain name record for bobs-chainsaws.co.uk reflecting Bob as the registrant, Bob’s entire IT investment and sales program is at the wrong end of a gun barrel, and whoever he looks to for assistance is going to be fighting with an arm tied behind his back. It is not a good place to be.

This kind of scenario usually happens without malice aforethought, but it is cold comfort when you are fighting for your commercial life. Similar situations arise when a business owner has a relative or trusted employee who knows enough to obtain a domain name, but falls prey to the same oversight during registration, and then leaves the business some time later, possibly under a cloud.

More recently, the problem comes to a head when businesses decide to purchase Nominet’s new extension –  .uk, which is targeted to overtake .co.uk, falling in line with other national IT cultures (Germany uses .de, France .fr, etc.) within the next three to five years. As businesses decide to take up their automatic right to take their .uk (e.g. bobs-chainsaws.uk), they are discovering that they cannot buy the domain name because it must be registered to the precedent owner attached to the .co.uk. In this case, only Bob’s erstwhile web designer could obtain bobs-chainsaws.uk because the designer owns bobs-chainsaws.co.uk.

An army of small business users are unaware of the timebomb they are straddling. Often web designers, engineers, and the well intended work under tight project timescales and let details like this slip. Often, too, the problem never surfaces. By the time people realise they have a problem, they have often passed the point of no return.

Domain names are the only security of tenure a business has for its online services. The cost of website development and email services themselves are small compared to the value these services bring to a business. Yet, when business owners get caught with mismanaged domain names in traps like the example above, the cost to business owners can be ruinous.

What to do

Checking who owns your domain name is straightforward. Ownership information is public domain. For .uk domains, Nominet’s home page includes a “Whois” tool (http://nominet.org.uk). Enter the domain name you are interested in and click. Alternately, type your domain name into the search field at http://who.is, and the output will inform you instantly. The key fields to look for are the “registrant” fields. If the domain name shows you as the owner, you may still consider contacting Nominet in the case of .co.uk domains to get access to your online service to be prepared for future eventualities. If you do not own your domain name, your IT investment is at risk of an unpleasantly hard landing.

Administration of domain registry is best left to specialists who understand zone records and can handle configurations for web designers, email services, and more recently tricky configurations for Micorosoft’s popular Office 365 and its Exchange services. Increasingly, businesses are having to divest email services from their web hosting operations in favour of specialised email servers and domain names need adequate zone records to authenticate evolving social networking commuinications. These kinds of skills are not really a web designer’s remit.

As small businesses look to services like Office 365 for corporate class email systems to avoid junk and spam, the role of an independent registry specialist who can manage domain names for owners, website designers, and other contractors is increasingly appealing.

If you need help getting a handle on your domain names, please contact Steve Galloway on 07834 461 266 or Fred Dreiling on 07919 340 570.

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