VeriSign of the times

Now it gets interesting.

On Wednesday reports surfaced that embattled Web address registrar VeriSign is being investigated by the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The probe is reportedly in response to marketing tactics that landed the company in hot water earlier this year.

Specifically, some competitors and customers filed lawsuits alleging VeriSign has deleted domain names and sent questionable direct mail solicitations. Whatever kind of impact this marketing campaign was supposed to achieve, this can’t be it.

Complaints from registrars like Go Daddy Software and BulkRegistrar led to a federal court order that forced VeriSign to stop the direct mail solicitations, but Canadian enterprises have been affected as well. A local company contacted ITBusiness.ca to tell us they had received a “”renewal”” notice from VeriSign that had to be signed before a certain expiry date. There was only one problem — this company was not a VeriSign customer, so there was nothing to “”renew.”” The fine print showed that signing the document would immediately transfer their business from their existing registrar to VeriSign. After we published our initial coverage of the BulkRegistrar lawsuit, other readers wrote in to tell us they received similar notices. It is easy to imagine a harried administrative person in a large company — one that isn’t entirely familiar with the company’s domain name agreements — dashing off a signature and returning the notice without questioning it.

Ploys like these create a terrible blot on the reputation of Internet-related businesses everywhere. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of guerilla marketing. I regularly walk around trade show floors and turn every Web browser I see to ITBusiness.ca. Whenever I’m at a magazine stand I always pull all the copies of eBusiness Journal to the front of the rack, obscuring the other magazines.

My favourite example of this comes from those heady days when Chapters and Indigo were still competing for online booksellers. Many novice surfers probably turned inadvertently to Indigo.com, only to find themselves at the Web site of Indigo Instruments, a supplier of educational science tools. In one corner of the site, however, a link said, “”Looking for books? Click here!”” The link would take them to Chapters.ca.

Are these dirty tricks on a par with what VeriSign has been accused of doing? I don’t think so, because they don’t misrepresent anyone. The Chapters/Indigo example may indicate otherwise, but there’s a difference between directing an online shopper to a rival site and pulling the wool over their eyes until they are contractually obligated to do business with you. Internet companies do all kinds of things to get attention — one recalls Yahoo with its digital sandwich boards that included remotely programmable messages — but marketing can’t override the customer’s ability to choose.

There is a temptation when we come across sleazy business practices to roll our eyes, mutter something deprecatory, and move on. It’s not enough, however. We have to pressure government to adjust legislation where necessary to recognize how these practices can be exported to the e-commerce economy. We have to report it, wherever we see it, not merely to the authorities but to each other, so we can collectively learn the limits to which some companies will go. As an industry, we have to market our intolerance to all but the most honest advertising policies — a campaign that should run indefinitely.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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