It's Day 29 of the cyberspace hostage crisis.
No, it's not a case of terrorism in a galaxy far, far away. It is what one Web site developer calls "electronic tyranny," in which the Internet identity and cyber property of some small businesses are held virtual captives by noncompliant Internet service providers.
Picture this: You're the proud owner of Karen's Widgets, a thriving business that wants to establish an outpost on the Internet. You hire a service provider to set up and host your Web site and to register your domain name: karenswidgets.com.
The relationship with the service provider heads south. You want to make a change, but quickly find out that breaking up is hard to do.
The old service provider either refuses to cooperate with the new provider to make the move happen, or simply ignores the phone calls, e-mails and faxes sent his way requesting the change.
Or even worse, the new provider discovers that the domain name was registered not to the business owner, but to the old service provider. Which means the domain name is, in the eyes of the registrar, not even yours to take. This mess could take weeks, if not months, to sort out.
Who ya gonna call?
You could try someone like William Malin, president of a company called Ventura Blvd. on the Web, a cyber marketplace for businesses in the region. Malin, who does Web design and hosting, said he was spending so much of his time rescuing hostage Web sites that he created a spinoff business, Domainrescue.com (http://www.domainrescue.com) to help business owners liberate their cyber shops from providers who just can't bear to let go.
And he said he's not the only Web host forced to act as a cyber Rambo.
"It can be that the previous provider is uncooperative or unresponsive or . . . has gone to sleep at the switch," said Malin. "Some providers will not only stop you from moving, but will take your Web site down or take it functionally away from you.
"For whatever reason, an [Internet service provider] can do all kinds of things to try to prevent someone from moving," he said. "It can get ugly."
In the past year, the Internet landscape has changed dramatically with increased competition among service providers, the addition of new domain name suffixes like dot-biz and dot-info, and the introduction of competition into the domain name registry business. With more players involved and the potential for more confusion on the part of consumers, experts say more and more business owners may discover that they'll have to fight to switch.
"With all of these changes, especially with the addition of new registrars and new top-level domains--the Web address suffixes--there are simply growing numbers of parties involved," said John Wong, manager of New Jersey-based Domain Registration Services, one of about 140 companies worldwide authorized to register Internet domain names. "For the consumer, it definitely can be more confusing. The consumer has to be more aware.
"And in some respects, it'll get worse before it gets better.
Malin says so far this year he's moved more than four dozen accounts from other service providers to his Woodland Hills-based company.
Of those, "more than half required some kind of special attention," he said, including about a half dozen that rose to the level of "hostage rescue." Those are complicated transfers that can take a month or more to complete.
"When it goes right, I'm really happy," said Malin, adding that he first ran into problems with obstinate providers three years ago. "More often than not, a provider will be nonresponsive or antagonistic to the new provider."
Depending on the complexity of the case, Malin may charge up to $1,000 to effectuate a divorce.
Earlier this year, Malin said he worked on a "textbook" case, involving the Web site for Palm Springs-based Spa de Jour.
Marci Lacy, a partner in the resort-area day spa, used words like "nightmare" and "quagmire" to describe the drama, which she said took her six months to straighten out.
Lacy's company had contracted with a local ISP to build and host a Web site and register the company's domain name. Through a series of miscommunications and "irresponsible management," work did not proceed on the site the way Lacy had envisioned. The old service provider was unresponsive and Lacy was finding herself more tense than some of her massage-seeking customers.
The biggest problem, according to Malin and Lacy, was the way the company's two domain names--www.spadejour.com and .net--were registered.
In the case of the dot-com name, the service provider used its own address, rather than the client's, as the address for the registered owner. That, and other glitches, clouded the spa's claim to the name.
The dot-net name was registered with a registrar in Australia, which had a failed business relationship with the old provider. Because of that, the registrar refused to let go of the name. That matter has yet to be resolved.