Year in Review: Defending the internet

It's been a busy old year on the ISP front.

It's been a busy old year on the ISP front.

Ihug, one of the oldest and largest of the nation's ISPs, merged with Perth-based up-and-comer iiNet. Between the two of them they have a business worth $100 million a year and, because of a neat geographical fit, they won't be closing offices or laying off staff. Perth has expanded ever eastward from Perth while Ihug is the number three in New Zealand. Both have their eyes on the eastern seaboard of Australia. IiNet claims to be the largest reseller of DSL services from Telstra in Australia and is very interested in Ihug's voice solution to complement its offerings.

Back in New Zealand Orcon Internet has been busy helping consolidate the New Zealand ISP market. It's bought 23 ISPs in the past three years and is rumoured to be in the market for Iprolink in the weeks ahead. It's also bought the customer base and security technology from Auckland-based SecureNet, which is undergoing a legal battle of its own against a former customer, Woolworths. SecureNet is accused of abusing its position as supplier of secure services by reading emails destined for Woolworths' executives during a contract dispute.

This year also saw most of the major ISPs introduce anti-virus and anti-spam filters. After letting end users struggle for years to manage the chore at the desktop, ISPs are blocking almost all viruses within minutes of a new breed emerging.

That didn't stop some of the nastiest viruses on record hitting home this year. SoBig, which struck New Zealand in August, increased email traffic tenfold in the space of a few weeks, though thankfully the payload itself wasn't triggered by too many end users.

However, it was the network worm Blaster and its supposed antidote, Nachi, that caused most alarm. Blaster itself exploited a security flaw in Microsoft's operating systems, turning infected machines into zombies for part of a distributed denial of service attack on Microsoft's Windows Update website. Nachi, on the other hand, was released to find unpatched machines and automatically fix them. While it may sound like a great idea, Nachi caused almost as much chaos as Blaster by increasing network traffic to breaking point.

Spam traffic has also increased dramatically this year -- around half of email traffic across New Zealand is now reported as unsolicited commercial email.

TelstraClear and Telecom both launched the same anti-spam service, from US-anti-spam giant Brightmail. Designed to catch as much spam as possible without too many "false positives", Brightmail seeds its ISP customers with live email addresses to catch any new wave of spam as it develops. Interestingly, Brightmail also makes use of real people in a contact centre reading the email to these live addresses to determine whether they are spam or not. In March Brightmail says it filtered more than 55 billion email messages, with over 40% of those being identified as spam. On the plus side, its CEO believes that within three years spam will be reduced to a manageable level. The answer lies in a combination of education, legislation and technology the CEO says.

On the legislation front, the US recently introduced an anti-spam bill that is being heralded as a huge success -- for spammers. Email that could be considered to be spam must be tagged with an identifying term in the subject line. Unfortunately the bill does not specify what term will be used, so there is no way for end users, IT managers or spam filters to block email based on that term. New Zealand legislators are considering their next move on the matter.

Meanwhile, also in the US, Verisign gave spammers a huge leg up by introducing its Site Finder "service".

Verisign, which runs the .com and .net name spaces, decided that rather than returning a standard error message when a URL is not active, it would direct users to a search engine called Site Finder which would initially help find the right site. Later it would include advertising. ISPs around the world became wild as their spam filters, which used the lack of a real domain name in their most basic searches, failed miserably. ICANN, the organisation appointed by the US government to oversee such things, decided Verisign had increased instability in the internet by introducing Site Finder and eventually Verisign caved in to pressure and switched it off.

On the local internet governance scene former monopoly registrar Domainz was finally sold off by InternetNZ, the society that looks after the .nz name space. InternetNZ had decided it shouldn't be in the business of running a domain name registrar in the fully competitive environment it had created and Domainz was duly put up for sale. Former Australian monopoly registrar Melbourne IT bought Domainz for around $2 million.

The source code used to build the shared registry system (SRS) will be offered for any registry to use from early next year. Built on the Perl scripting language and the PostgreSQL database, the SRS could be used to run domain name registries around the world. Although the company that runs the register in New Zealand wouldn't reveal the value of the code, InternetNZ paid around $1 million for the SRS to be developed.

The SRS launch was completed this year as well. After the disastrous launch of the SRS's predecessor, the SRS launch went almost without a hitch. A staged approach saw both systems run in parallel until the SRS was considered roadworthy. Then only the stabilising registrar was able to access the SRS to make changes on behalf of other registrars as they built systems to integrate with the register itself.

While many expected only a handful of registrars to launch in the first few months, InternetNZ was astonished to be inundated with requests. Today the registrar market is fully competitive and highly commercial with a range of different products on offer, from bulk buying capability to full management services. Unfortunately this new environment hasn't stopped a handful of Australian domain name scam artists from trying to set up in New Zealand. Several different companies have sent out bulk email or posted letters "warning" registrants that the .net.nz equivalent of their names have not been registered. These letters usually offer customers the chance to register for two years at a relatively high rate.

Fortunately most New Zealand registrants know to disregard these communiques and both the Commerce Commission and its Australian equivalent are investigating and prosecuting those scammers that are caught.

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