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Failure to Renew Domain Disrupts E-Mail at Post

by Jonathan Krim

E-mail communication to and from The Washington Post was disrupted yesterday after its washpost.com Internet address was shut down because the company failed to renew its 5 annual registration.

The outage did not affect the ability of readers around the world to read the Post's news Web site, which resides at a separate "domain," washingtonpost.com. But the newspaper's journalists and other employees, who rely on e-mail for communication with sources, advertisers and other clients, were without it for part of the day after washpost.com was shut down.

The newspaper explained the problem to readers today in a note published on Page A2. According to a separate prepared statement, the newspaper "inadvertently allowed the washpost.com domain to expire. External e-mail was disrupted for hours. The domain name was immediately renewed."

Frustrated employees, who also lost some other internal Internet-based functions, were told that renewal notices from Herndon-based Network Solutions Inc., which registers domain names, went to a "drop box" that was not monitored.

The problem was discovered early Thursday morning when the paper's Baghdad bureau chief, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, was unable to get onto the Post's internal messaging system. E-mail sent to the Post bounced back to the senders, with a notification that the domain no longer existed.

W.G. Champion Mitchell, chief executive of Network Solutions, said that in the past six months the Post was sent "no less than seven" notifications that the registration was about to expire, most of them by e-mail. A manager in the newspaper's technology division is listed as the contact for the account.

The domain expired on Jan. 29, but firms are given a grace period of six days, during which they are sent final warning notices, Mitchell said.

Network Solutions' policy, he said, is to begin sending notices 330 days before expiration. He said the Post would have been sent at least two notices via physical mail, when the e-mail notices did not get a response. Clients can also manage their accounts and renew registrations online, Mitchell said. Renewals can be for up to 10 years.

Mitchell said that it is not uncommon for a registration to accidentally go unpaid, like household bills that are sometimes misplaced or forgotten. However, he said, that is generally not a problem with domains bearing names of large companies such as the Post. "Big names like you generally have pretty well-organized [information technology] departments," he said.

Mitchell said the process of notification and termination is automated. It would be impractical, he said, for a company that manages 7.9 million domains to call a customer who did not respond to multiple expiration warnings.

When a domain is turned off, it can take as long as two days for the firm's affected operations to return to normal. Twice a day, a list of active domains is sent across the world's networks and to the servers that route e-mail. It can take up to 48 hours for a restored domain to reach all of those points.

But allowing domains to expire poses greater risks for some who let them slip. Entrepreneurs are constantly trolling for unused or soon-to-expire domains that they try to snap up, often to sell to other businesses that might want them.

Software packages are available to automate the process for do-it-yourselfers. Network Solutions contracts with a company that performs the service. A domain cannot be transferred until 45 days after it expires, and prospective owners must be sure that their use of the domain name would not violate another firm's trademarks.

In a previously well-publicized case, Microsoft Corp. neglected to renew its passport.com domain in 1999. The company was rescued by a quick-thinking computer user who noticed it and ponied up the renewal fee himself.

The domain was vital to Microsoft because it was used to verify users of its Hotmail e-mail service.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees the domain registry system, is working on a wait-list service for domain names, Mitchell said.


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