Cyber-squatters play the name game
In the new economy, the question 'What's in a name?', has taken on a new meaning. The answer can be millions of dollars, thanks to the inflammatory and, some would say, unethical practice of cyber-squatting, alias cyber-piracy.
Either way, it means buying or distorting a prestigious Web site domain name.
The target is usually a celebrity such as Madonna or a big company such as Liverpool Football Club. In a spirit of extortion, the cyber-squatter may tell the target that if they want their name they will have to pay some ridiculous sum which may look tempting if the cyber-squatter posts embarrassing pictures on the site.
The cyber-squatter who baulks at trying to extract money may just quietly enjoy the buzz of owning a slice of a powerful entity's identity and bragging to those without a Web site. Either way, in the mind of the victim, the cyber-squatter is just a technological terrorist who deserves to be dumped in a dungeon. The most notorious is John Zuccarini.
If you are a touch maladroit on the keyboard you may already have unwittingly brushed with this mysterious figure. He is responsible for thousands of dubious domains deliberately spelt wrongly and easily reached through a slip of the finger as you type an address.
Mr Zuccarini reportedly earns as much as US$1 million annually through his devious dyslexia. In a variation on the extortion ploy, he charged advertisers between 10 US cents and 25 US cents each time an Internet user clicked on one of their advertisements posted on his site. As a result, every microsecond, someone launches a law suit against the maverick who, ironically, portrays himself as homeless, thus hampering attempts to bring him to justice.
However, earlier this year a United States court ordered him to stop cyber-squatting and hand over more than US$1.8 million in ill-gotten gains.
In general the trend is towards courts ruling against the cyber-squatter. Further discouragement comes from the practice of Global Name Registry-licensed 'defensive' registration. It means buying offensive domain names so that, when they are entered in a browser's address box, the user is taken to the company or celebrity's authorised home page.
For instance, the Republican Party has registered 260 George W. Bush-related domains, including bushsucks, bushblows and bushbites in all the .com, .net and .org versions. About the only names missing are bushworshipsthedevil and smirkingchimp which actually exists as a Bush-bashing dotcom. If you try to call up any of the registered pages, you will only land on the official Bush presidential site - www.georgewbush.com.
In another measure intended to squash the cyber-squatter, the Global Name Registry offers a 'NameWatch' service whereby anyone may pay for notice of attempts by third parties to register a domain name corresponding to a trademark, a specific name, or any other word.
Life is tough for the cyber-squatter unless, say, he happens naturally to possess a name with prestigious corporate associations, as in last year's case of the Canadian graphic artist Anand Ramnath Mani (A.R. Mani). He registered the domain name armani.com and was dragged into court by a certain fashion powerhouse. The United Nations-backed World Intellectual Property Organisation - eventually sided with Mr Mani because it could not be proved that he had registered in bad faith.
But hardcore cyber-squatting domains bought in bad faith do exist. Just try visiting microsoftsucks.com, say, and you will wind up at Sucks500.com, which proclaims itself as 'the Web site corporate America has not been able to shut down'. Despite the pressure, it looks unlikely cyber-squatters will ever face permanent eviction.
Confused by computer jargon? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions.