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Wouldn't this be considered as a form of hijacking? I've been in the industry since 1998 and have administered to dozens of sites. I have never been told that I have to pay to release a domain.
Can I fight this?
[edited by: Webwork at 9:55 pm (utc) on Mar. 6, 2008]
[edit reason] Check your stickymail [/edit]
My guess is that "your fight", if any, might best be waged by filing your complaint with your credit card company - after you get the domain moved to a new registrar. :)
It certainly has a bad feel too it, like an unjustified opportunistic self-interest-rationalized preemptive renewal . . but you might want to check your existing agreements to determine if the renewal conforms to anything you previously agreed to, such as renewals being made before the actual registration expiration date.
From experience, this setup isn't usually about upsetting the customer, but more as a protective step against the domain name being lost - which would annoy the customer more so I would imagine.