On March 16th, the International Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN) publicly de-accredited the domain registrar RegisterFly.com for fundamental contractual breaches. BusinessWeek Online appropriately called the RegisterFly.com debacle a “Train wreck” and although this is not SEO-related I think StepForth SEO Blog readers should be kept in the know about this situation. Perhaps this post will help you protect your domain(s) and ultimately your livelihoods from future train wrecks. To that end, I have outlined some tips at the end of this post that will serve as a checklist to help protect you.

So What Happened at RegisterFly.com?
Near as I can tell it all began when the owners of the company began a power struggle that ultimately eroded customer support to appalling levels. As a result, customers were not able to transfer or renew their domains and in some cases personal information on their domains were even switched to reflect RegisterFly ownership.

Here is a comment from the BusinessWeek article that speaks volumes of the bad will well-earned by RegisterFly.com:

“This has been a travesty. The transfer system was designed to work between two trusted registrars and completely breaks down when one has gone bad. RegisterFly has held customers hostage by not providing the “auth codes,” by arbitrarily locking domain names, by changing the “Whois” info, and by arbitrarily putting your domain into “ProtectFly”, their service to protect your identity but also keeps you from transferring your name.

We have lost domains and, more importantly, production Web sites have just gone dead, heading to a RegisterFly parking page instead. Try explaining this to customers depending on these sites for their business. RegisterFly’s debacle has ruined businesses and lives. And this could have all been avoided with a better process in place and more in-depth criteria for accreditation. This process must be improved before the Internet can truly be used for mission-critical applications.”

What Has ICANN Done to Help?
The International Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN) came under severe criticism as a result of RegisterFly.com’s actions because affected domain owners were frustrated ICANN took so long to act. Unfortunately it appears that the domain registration system has some serious flaws because ICANN, which is the only authoritative body in charge of domains, had little power to wield. Here is a March 7th excerpt from the ICANN Ombudsman Blog that provides some insight into ICANN’s efforts:

“ICANN is not a regulator. We rely mainly on contract law. We do not condone in any way whatsoever RegisterFly’s business practice and behaviour.

The options for customers to transfer their names to another registrar at this stage are limited. We will advise if we have more information on this point. Last Friday, ICANN convened a telephone conference among those needed to implement a plan that will help cease unintended deletions. This will prevent names from being deleted from the registry and becoming available for re-registration by others. RegisterFly has assured us (for what that is worth) that they will process such requests as soon as they are again technically operational. We will keep a close eye on this.

We do hope this information is helpful and provides some small level of comfort in what is clearly a stressful time for registrants and others affected by these events. Check in at both here and at our website www.icann.org where these issues (amongst others) are being discussed.”

For what it is worth, ICANN’s 16th of March posting announcing the de-accreditation of RegisterFly also indicated that “ICANN intends to hold a forum to discuss the reform of the Accreditation policy and process at its Lisbon meeting in a week’s time.” What will come of this meeting is uncertain but there is no doubt that ICANN needs a far larger stick to wield at future companies like RegisterFly.

Protecting Your Domains
Big thanks to jtara’s post at WebmasterWorld for some of these points:

  1. Do your due diligence and check on the reputations of your prospective registrar before registering domains with them. Try searching with their name followed by “complaint” or any other related words and see if you find anything alarming. Most large registrars will have a complaint or two which is understandable but definitely go the other way if you too many or if, in the worst case scenario, you see a movement such as www.registerflies.com.
  2. Do NOT host your website with your registrar or use their DNS records because any downtime on their part may turn your website into a 404.
  3. Be careful registering your domain with a hosting company. Just like a registrar, a hosting company can leave you in hot water if it goes South. Generally hosting companies are just resellers of domains so all is not lost; with some effort you may be able to skirt around the hosting company and contact the core domain registrar.
  4. If you must make your whois information private then use a 3rd party privacy service – one that is not directly affiliated with your registrar. This way you can be reasonably sure that your privacy options are under your control only.
  5. Do NOT allow your registrar or hosting company to have any stake in your domain whois records. For example, making a hosting company contact the Admin of your domain opens you up to potential problems.
  6. Make certain your whois information is accurate so you can be contacted should complications arise. You are out of luck if privacy is in effect but that should be an understood sacrifice of such a specialized service.
  7. Register important domains for a few years instead of just one so that you can be sure you will not lose your domain to renewal should you find yourself with a bad registrar.

Closing Remarks
My heart goes out to all of those affected by this horrid situation. The idea that clients of RegisterFly may have lost domains after investing thousands of hours and dollars in their website – is a sobering thought. I can only hope that those most painfully affected by this mess get some justice – better late than never. Sincerely, Ross Dunn, CEO, StepForth SEO Services

PS. I don’t think this post would be complete without a creative video that YouTube user “hd1080i” used to put the RegisterFly events into perspective.