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Automatic registration of second level UK domains

Written by Kieran Jones

When second level UK domains became available in June 2014, for the first time UK registrants were able to own a domain ending in just .uk rather than .co.uk or similar (third level domains), much the same way as countries like Ireland (.ie), France (.fr), Germany (.de), and countless others have always done it.

The decision to make second level domains available was somewhat controversial at the time and continues to be today; many Nominet members (including ourselves) as well as other stakeholders voiced their strong concerns about several aspects of the proposal. A big part of the concern among members was that naturally after decades of only being able to register third level UK domains, suddenly opening up second level domains meant there was inevitably going to be conflict with the registrants of the more than 10 million existing third level domains. Registrants of third level domains would more than likely need/want the second level equivalent in order to prevent so called squatting.

Nominet’s solution to this was that new second level domains would be reserved for an equivalent existing third level domain until 10th of June 2019 with who gets the reservation depending on the type and date of existing third level registration. In theory this gave registrants ample opportunity to decide whether to purchase their second level domains before they are released for public registration five years later. Unfortunately, as many Nominet members and industry experts predicted, the launch of second level domains was largely a flop and according to the latest statistics from May 2017, only 637,360 second level domains have been registered, compared to 10,039,279 third level domains.

Nominet naturally want to increase the uptake of second level domains and so are regularly running various campaigns including print, television, and radio adverts, not to mention trade show events both by themselves and as co-marketing activities with registrars all designed to increase public awareness and drive new registrations. Nominet also regularly run promotions with registrars to both encourage new domain registrations or increase renewal rates across both their second and third level domain.

One such promotion is free 2 year registration of reserved second level domains.

Automatic registration

The idea of the free 2 year registration promotion was for registrars to contact their registrants who hold the right of registration and prompt them to claim their second level domain for free. However some registrars have decided that a far more effective way of increasing update is to just register the eligible domains automatically without even asking the customer’s permission.

So far registrars such as 123-reg, Namesco, and Freeparking (not to mention countless others) have all already begun automatically registering second level domains in the names of their customers unless the customer explicitly opts out. This decision is questionable at best; the registration of a UK domain is a rather unique legally binding three way contract between registrant, the registrar, and the registry (Nominet). In essence by automatically registering a domain in your name, you have been entered into a legally binding contract without your knowledge using your personal information which may well be made public without your agreement. This also involves the registrar processing your personal data in a manner to which you did not originally consent and so may also fall fowl of the Data Protection Act.

We believe that this behaviour is unethical, sneaky, and of questionable good practice, or even legality. We are very strongly against this and we want to publicly state for the record that we believe that this practice is not only bad for customers, but it is bad for the .uk namepace as a whole, and the reputation of the industry in general.

It seems clear to us that the decision to automatically register domains it not in the interests of registrants as these registrars claim, but rather is an attempt to extract more money when those “free” domains ultimately come up for renewal in 2 years time. No doubt a large number of those unwitting second level domain owners will end up automatically renewing the domains at their cost - domains that they never asked for in the first place, probably don’t realise that they own, and quite possibly don’t even need.

Ethical business

We believe that doing business ethically is not only the right thing to do, but that it is essential for the long term success of any business. Our customers trust us to advise them honestly, treat them fairly, and not simply try to extract as much money as possible. We are upfront about everything that we do, and we don’t ever hide behind small print. More often than not, we struggle to put on special offers or take part in promotions simply because we refuse to use an asterisk or small print in order to add hidden restrictions.

The practice of automatically registering domains in the names of customers without their explicit consent is unethical and designed with the sole purpose of increasing the registrar’s profit at the expense of the unwitting registrants of second level domains. Many customers simply don’t understand domain names, hosting, or any of the terms related to this industry and they rely on their chosen host to help them get their businesses online in the most suitable way possible. Rather than doing their best to help their customers, these registrars are instead exploiting their position of knowledge and tricking customers into buying a domain they quite probably don’t even need. This is quite simply wrong and one way or another it has to stop.

At the time of writing there has been no public comment from Nominet on the automatic registration being carried out by their registrars, but we call on them to step in and stop this misleading and unethical practice immediately. However, the cynic might say that considering that all of Nominet’s registries combined have just 140,601 more domains than they did 3 years ago, Nominet may well be willing to overlook this underhand practice and profit from it along with the partaking registrars with the £3.75 excluding VAT per year that Nominet receive for every domain renewed.