The firm GoDaddy, a major registrar of website names, faces a likely wave of customer defections Thursday, and it’s all about the politics of that freewheeling information conduit known as the Internet.
The boycott is happening because the company lent support to proposed legislation in Congress called the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA), designed to crack down on copyright infringement.
Many people in the tech world, including some large corporations like Google and Facebook, say the proposed act is draconian, and would lead to unwarranted website shutdowns that stifle the Web's role as a fast-evolving platform for sharing information.
So some customers of GoDaddy took umbrage at its position and named Dec. 29 as a day to defect. The boycott plans remain in effect for many, even though the firm has partially reversed its position on the legislation.
By some accounts, damage to GoDaddy's business and reputation won't be severe. The company is the largest player in the business of registering website names (or domains, in industry jargon), a step that people and companies take when setting up new websites.
So far, customer departures over SOPA in the past week may number in the tens of thousands, according to reported estimates.
Even if that number rises significantly on Thursday, GoDaddy would have a very large client list remaining.
"The company currently manages over 50 million domain names for more than nine million customers worldwide," the firm says on its website, asserting that its size is more than four times that of its closest competitor.
But the boycott plan, and the firm's reversal on SOPA, underscores the volatile nature of business conditions in an era when customer outrage can be fanned and accelerated by the very Internet connections that GoDaddy has helped to create.
Another Web-oriented company, Netflix, has recently learned this the hard way.
When Netflix announced a new business model, breaking its movie rental business in two (one platform for online video streaming and another for delivery of DVDs by traditional mail), the firm's customers rose up in rebellion.
It wasn't long before Netflix backtracked, cancelling the newly named Qwikster (the planned name for the mail-delivery business). The foul-up still took a big financial toll on the firm.
In GoDaddy's case, the outcry may have caused thousands of departures already (the firm lost 21,000 domains last Friday alone), but industry analysts warn against reading too much into this tally. Even before the boycott call, thousands of domains could be moved out on any day, given the sheer size of GoDaddy's base.
And GoDaddy has added thousands of domains each day.
"On Friday, 20,034 domains transferred to Go Daddy, making for a net loss of [only] 1,020," says the technology blog Chip Chick. "For a company that boasts 50 million domains, calling the loss inconsequential would be an understatement."
Still, the domain dustup poses a public relations challenge for the firm. Critics say it hasn't modified its position on SOPA enough.
"Since the announcement of the boycott of GoDaddy, GoDaddy has just publicly dropped their support of the heinous Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA," the website GoDaddyboycott.org says. "But, they still support the Senate version of SOPA, called PIPA or PROTECT-IP. If you work on the internet and do business with GoDaddy you're supporting a company who is actively working against your best interests."
It's hard to know how big an impact the legislation would have on the shape of the Internet. But the House bill angered many Web users with provisions that could effectively shut down websites with little warning.
As the Monitor reported earlier this month, under SOPA a film or record company could blacklist websites it deems to be infringing on copyrights. With judicial approval, the companies could bar ad providers and banks from doing business with those websites.
The measure is designed to target websites based outside the US.
Critics argue that the bill could result in an on-rush of Internet censorship, as websites sought to prevent activity by users that could expose them to charges of being platforms for piracy.
The outcry against GoDaddy erupted on the social website Reddit, when one commenter issued a call to drop GoDaddy's service.