The Internet's key oversight agency is investigating suspicions that insider information is being used to snatch desired domain names before an individual or business can register them.

The Security and Stability Advisory Committee of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers termed the practice "domain name front running" and likened it to a stock broker buying or selling shares ahead of a client's trade, in anticipation of a movement in price.

In the case of Internet addresses, many people who see a domain name available the first time they check find it already taken by the time they return to buy it.

That has led to suspicions that someone with access to search requests has been using the information to gauge interest in a domain name.

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By buying the domain first, that person can then try to sell it to the interested party for a profit. This is different from traditional domain name speculation because the buyer knows for sure that the address is of interest.

Although the practice has never been proven, the ICANN committee said the perception that it is happening "portrays an unfavorable image of the parties associated with the domain name registration process in specific, and of the domain name community in general."

The committee said it wants to prevent "perception from evolving to accepted wisdom."

The committee cited several ways front running may be happening, including the installation of viruses and other software programmed to collect such information and the use of unscrupulous third-party sites to check domain name availability. Coincidence also was cited as a possibility.

ICANN is trying to gather evidence on whether it is occurring and, if so, whether policies or other measures are required to restrict the practice.