Network Solutions To Sell Ads on Whois Page

Reversing an earlier policy, Network Solutions plans to open up Whois, its popular domain look-up site, to advertisers.

NSI Monday told InternetNews Radio it is working with ad firm DoubleClick to solicit Web hosting companies and Internet service providers as Whois advertisers, with banner ad runs to begin in September.

While the domain registrar wouldn’t reveal traffic figures, NSI’s Whois site is widely regarded as prime real estate, with a search window onto the records of the 5 million domains it has registered since being granted an exclusive government contract over six years ago.

According to NSI General Manager Doug Wolford, the Whois ad program is a response to strong demand from Internet businesses.

“For years people have approached us and said they want to advertise at our site. It’s the kind of audience that everybody on the Internet is desperate to reach.”

Word of NSI’s plans comes amid a debate over ownership of the central database of Internet addresses. In recent months, the U.S. Department of Commerce has insisted that the information ultimately belongs to the U.S. government, but NSI contends that it’s the company’s intellectual property. Department of Commerce officials were not immediately available for comment.

Bill Whyman, an Internet analyst with the Legg Mason Precursor Group, praised NSI for expanding its revenue sources to include advertising, but he predicted the firm may encounter resistence from Commerce.

“The regulatory status of Whois is unclear. And if it’s seen that they’re using a public resource for private gain, it’s problematic,” said Whyman.

But according to Prudential Securities analyst Paul Merenbloom, there’s nothing inappropriate about Network Solutions’ Whois plans. He says that while NSI may have a unique access to the Whois data, the company doesn’t prohibit others from offering similar look-up services — and in fact, many ISPs already provide search scripts to their customers for accessing the database.

“There are thousand of locations who link to Whois and all have the option of selling ads on those pages. To preclude NSI from doing this would be unfair and could be viewed as a restraint of trade.”

But some ISPs today are nonetheless crying foul. William Walsh, general manager of DSo Internet Services, a Web hosting company in central California, said NSI’s new ad policy will be bad news for smaller ISPs who can’t afford to buy ads on the Whois page.

“What makes it troubling is the ISPs for so many years have had no options but to send customers to NSI, so NSI now has 5 million customers that will go to their site for modifications or to check the status of their account. And while there, they’re going to be subject to advertising for services that directly compete with the Internet service providers that sent them there in the first place,” said Walsh, who said he and a group of other ISPs are drafting a letter to the U.S. Justice Department asking for an investigation into whether NSI is abusing its market position.

Among the companies courted by DoubleClick for ad space at Whois was Jungling Co., a family-owned web hosting firm in Wisconsin. When the ad firm approached him two weeks ago, President John Jungling said he was thrilled with the opportunity of advertising on Whois.

“But then I realized it placed us in a win-lose position. It’s the most important space out there for us, but other players will also be in that space. And for people looking to purchcase a domain, the message they see could take them away to my competitors.”

Network Solutions has been running its own banner ads touting its services on the Whois page for about six months, according to Wolford, and opening the space to other advertisers will be regarded as a plus.

“Anybody who is critical of us would welcome the gesture that we’re opening this up. It’s actually a net positive,” he said.

Like most Internet companies, NSI apparently won’t be taking ads from any of its competitors. After discussing an ad placement with DoubleClick, Jungling said he learned his firm was on NSI’s “banned” list because Jungling Company has applied to become a member of the Internet Council of Registrars, an NSI competitor.

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