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Tech 101 | Dave Wilson

Innovations Come With Surprises for Unwary

January 24, 2002|Dave Wilson

Marina Dundjerski, a writer who lives in Los Angeles, bought her own Internet domain name, just like millions of other Americans. She also got, at no extra charge, a big scare.

A domain name,, for instance, is the stuff to the right of the @ sign in an e-mail address.

When Dundjerski set up her domain in 2000, she paid a fee good for two years. When the name came up for renewal this month, she went to the Web site of the company that manages her domain-name registration and made a discovery that left her terrified.

"My home address was up there on the Internet for anybody to look up," she said, her voice still quivering days after the discovery. "All you had to do was look for my name--and I have a very unusual name--and you'd know exactly where I live."

It was a bit much for a woman who pays for an unlisted telephone number so that crazies won't be able to come a-knocking.

Dundjerski said she had no idea that registering a domain name would make information such as her address and home telephone number public. That's a good example of the pitfalls of technological innovation.

The Internet's naming system was established at a time when the only people likely to have a domain were university computer science labs. In that environment, it didn't matter if the phone numbers and addresses of domain name owners were available to the public.

In fact, there are good reasons for having such information easily accessible. When a computer system starts spitting garbage out onto the Net, it's important for technical experts to be able to contact that system's administrator. Likewise, it's good public policy to give Internet users the ability to track down who's behind a Web site.

But today, with more and more individuals owning domains, safety and privacy issues also must be taken into account.

Dundjerski contacted Verisign, which owns Network Solutions, the original registrar for domain names that end in "com," and asked that her personal information be removed from the "whois" database, which allows for searches by individual name or domain name.

"They said they didn't have any way to hide the information," she said. "But they did tell me to just make up an address and put it in there. So that's what I did."

That solution, however, points to another problem: The database is unreliable.

"You don't have to put your home address or telephone information in there," said Pat Burns, a spokesman for Verisign. "All that's really needed is a billing or administrator contact." In this case, the Internet service provider is adequate.

All domain name registrars--there are about 100 of them today--must maintain a customer database under the Internet's rules. The system is designed to make the Internet less mysterious, hold Web site operators accountable and keep the Internet a relatively open public entity.

But Dundjerski's surprise discovery demonstrates that the technologies that have become so critical to our daily lives remain mysterious to most of us.

Skilled engineers have made our systems easy enough for nonexperts to use. But if you're not an expert familiar with the ins and outs of the system, you could fall over something unexpected.

And sometimes even experts get tripped up.

"People have looked up my home number in the database and called me up," said usability guru Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen, a principal of Nielsen Norman Group, is an expert on why technology is hard to use. Nielsen said he too had to go into the database and change his personal information to avoid further intrusions.

He said the reason people have such problems with cutting-edge technology is our tendency to try to interpret new gadgets through a familiar prism.

"When you buy something in a store, you pay for it and leave and the store has no way to get in contact with you again," he said. "When you buy something at an Internet store, the store will often come back to you and try to get you to spend more money there."

The difference in those two experiences, and the failure of unwary consumers to anticipate the difference, is caused by our tendency to operate in metaphors.

What is a word processor? Well, it's like a typewriter. Although that metaphor helps people trust the new technology enough to try it out, selling technology with a metaphor instead of an actual description of what's going on means users often fail to understand crucial differences between the old and the new.

During the Iran-Contra affair, for example, White House aide Oliver North thought deleting files in his word processing program would destroy crucial evidence. He didn't understand that the system also made back-up copies at another location.

The new technology is never really like the old stuff. Eventually the metaphors that we use to muddle through break down.

Dundjerski was lucky. She found out the metaphor she was using--this domain registration thing is like a telephone directory--wasn't true. Although she was at risk, she corrected the problem before anything happened.

"I'm hoping other people in similar situations hear about this," she said. "This has got to be fixed."

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