By
The Associated Press
updated 9/19/2003 8:11:45 AM ET 2003-09-19T12:11:45

An Internet search company on Thursday filed a $100 million antitrust lawsuit against VeriSign Inc., accusing the Web address provider of hijacking misspelled and unassigned Web addresses with a service it launched this week. VeriSign’s new SiteFinder service takes searches for “.com” and “.net” Web addresses that are not spelled correctly or have not yet been registered and redirects them to a VeriSign Web page that includes options and pay-for-placement topic links.

SINCE IT WAS LAUNCHED on Monday, the SiteFinder service has drawn widespread criticism from Internet users who complain that VeriSign has overstepped its authority. However, VeriSign says it is merely offering a convenient service.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Orlando, Florida, alleges antitrust violations, unfair competition and violations of the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and asks the court to order VeriSign to put a halt to the service, said Robert Hart, a spokesman for Popular Enterprises LLC, the Orlando-based parent company of search provider Netster.com.

According to the lawsuit, Mountain View, California-based VeriSign has been using its position as the keeper of the master list of all Web addresses ending in “.com” and “.net,” also called domain names, to unfair advantage.

Not only is VeriSign making money off the redirected searches, but it is improperly interfering with competing services, including Netster’s SmartBrowse and similar services run by Internet service providers like AOL Time Warner Inc.’s

America Online and Microsoft Corp., Popular Enterprises said.

Typically, Internet users are shown a generic “404 - cannot be found” page when a Web address does not exist. SmartBrowse and other services display Web sites and search options that are closely related to the original search request.

DIGITAL DEAD ENDVeriSign spokesman Brian O’Shaughnessy said he could not comment on the lawsuit because the company had not seen it and does not as a matter of policy comment on pending litigation.

He defended the company’s new service, saying it was helping people find Web sites instead of sending them down a digital “dead end.”

“Twenty million times a day on our network, people mistype domains and don’t get what they’re looking for,” he said. “Web navigation can be improved with services like SiteFinder.”

A Web community backlash has led to the creation of software to allow people to circumvent the SiteFinder service.

The Internet Software Consortium, a non-profit group that developed the BIND software that directs most Web traffic to the correct address, released new software on Wednesday that ISPs can use to block the SiteFinder service for customers, said Paul Vixie, president of the Redwood City, California-based group.

SiteFinder reduces the effectiveness of anti-spam programs that work by rejecting e-mail coming from non-existent Web addresses, Vixie said.

It also is raising privacy concerns that VeriSign will have access to log-in names and passwords that are sometimes included in Web address queries and information in e-mails sent inadvertently to non-existent Web addresses, he added.

VeriSign’s O’Shaughnessy said the company’s technicians were looking into the complaint about SiteFinder thwarting anti-spam software, but said the privacy complaint was a “red herring” since the company would not keep such information.

Vixie said many people believe VeriSign should not have launched the new service without first getting permission from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the organization that oversees Internet policies and practices.

“If VeriSign is a caretaker (of Web addresses) then they’ve exceeded their authority,” Vixie said.

Mary Hewitt, a spokeswoman for ICANN, said the organization knew about VeriSign’s idea for the service but had not given final approval and did not know it was being activated. She said the group would have more comment on the matter within the next few days.

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