Cast your mind back to 1998, when the internet still wasn’t cool and owning your own domain was something of a novelty.

Back then to buy a domain (at least in the UK) was an expensive and time consuming business… enter Just The Name. JTN provided an affordable (for that time) domain name registration service with a simple web interface and a number of basic services such as email and web forwarding and a DNS control panel.

Now of course there is much more competition, and JTN is really starting to show its age. For a start its prices are far from competitive, but while this is irritating it is not necessarily a showstopper (especially when it comes to people who have domains on the service already and can’t afford the down time of a transfer).

What is a showstopper however is that (while its front page has gone through numerous revisions) the back end systems haven’t been updated in the last however long. The upshot being that while you get helpful emails telling you that your domain is about to expire, you can’t do anything about them because the payment system has not been updated to accept a CVV code.

Therefore, all payments get rejected by the bank.

The last time a domain hosted with them came up for renewal I even reported this to them as their head of department took a manual card payment over the phone, but over a year later this issue remains unfixed.

While he may kill elephants for fun, at least Bob Parsons the Godaddy CEO understands that having a way for customers to give you money is fairly important for a successful business.

Since “providing a way to let customers give you money” doesn’t seem to rank on their list of priorities, I figured this didn’t bode well should anything go wrong with their infrastructure. So, as each domain comes up for renewal I’ve been moving them to a different provider.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

In fairness, they don’t quibble about unlocking the domain or providing me with an authentication code. However, since the administrator email is their info@ (unheard of nowadays) and they refuse to change it, the authorisation from the new provider is being lost in the void.

The back and forth with their support department (now going on for over a week) is starting to resemble a Turing test. Ever sympathetic as I am to anyone who works front line support, this is starting to tick me off in no small way and I dread the time when I have to move my main domains over.

Currently, it seems like the only way they are staying in business is by keeping people’s domains hostage.

Back in July I gave a talk at Oxford Geek Nights about the Digital Britain report entitled “#DigitalBritain fail” in which I discussed the Digital Britain report and some of it’s many shortcomings.

One of the potential courses of action I suggested that people could take was to essentially smile,  say “that’s nice dear” and continue innovating. To take the typically open source approach adopted by the guys at Open Streetmap (among others) and recreate proprietary datasets in the public domain.

I was therefore delighted when I came across the guys at Ernest Marples, who were attempting to provide a free version of the Postcode to location database.

As a bit of background; in the UK the state (via Royal mail holdings for which the state is the sole shareholder) has a monopoly on all postcode to location lookups. This monopoly is protected by crown copyright and a royal charter, which basically means that even though the dataset was produced using taxpayer’s money it is owned by the crown (in the case of crown copyright), and the charter means that nobody else is permitted to provide the same service.

This means that in order to do anything with postcodes you need to pay a licence fee to the post office, pricing the small players out of the game or limiting them to use a service provider such as Yahoo (which has it’s own terms of usage). A similar situation exists for geolocation in general, but in this instance you have to pay the Ordnance Survey.

This situation is archaic and was a hot topic at Barcamp Transparency. Data which are produced by taxpayer money should be freely available to all, and I had hoped that the dissolution of crown copyright would have been one of the first thing that the Digital Britain report recommended.

Yesterday, Ernest Marples announced in their blog that they were shutting down their service in the face of a legal challenge from Royal Mail, who pretty much accused them of stealing their database. Although the Ernest Marples guys were a little cagey about where they got their data (with hindsight this was probably a mistake) they did explicitly state that it was not using the Royal Mail database in any way.

Under the terms of the charter however, they are simply not permitted to provide this service and compete with Royal mail, and this is the basis of the legal challenge.

I am saddened to see this promising project go, and especially sorry to see that they don’t have the funds to get their day in court. A court case of this nature could provide a useful forum to hold a long overdue debate as to the relevance of the charter and crown copyright in general in the twenty-first century.

Crown copyright is a problem (as well as being morally dubious), and a monopoly is always bad (especially when state enforced). It is sad to see promising UK innovation stifled by entrenched interests, but it seems to be a reoccuring theme in modern Britain. As we have just seen it puts severe limits on just how far a project can go in opening up and recreating data sets, and this worries me.

I wish the project and it’s organisers all the best for the future.

Top image “postbox_20may2009_0830” by Patrick H. Lauke