A Cybersquatting Investigation

I really had no intention of writing about domain names or cybersquatting today, but the reporting on an appearance by Louis Touton, vice president and general counsel of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and two registrars accidentally disclosed the dimensions of the problem.

Reuters’ Andy Sullivan reported on Touton’s appearance last week before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, where he testified that cybersquatting on new top-level domains will be fought hard.

If someone else has the trademark on Coke (and I believe someone does), you won’t be allowed to register Coke.biz and Coke won’t have to pay for it, either, said Jeff Neuman of NeuStar Inc., the registrar for the new .biz domain.

A representative of Register.com said only qualified professionals like doctors, lawyers, and accountants will be allowed to register their names in the new .pro domain. (What, not journalists?)

Then, in an offhand way, Sullivan noted that cybersquatting occurs when high-profile names are registered with the intent of selling them for a profit, giving the examples of juliaroberts.com and harrypotterbooks.com.

Maybe he didn’t mean for those to be clickable links, but they were, and it got me to investigating.

The name harrypotterbooks.com, it turns out, leads to a specific page on barnesandnoble.com. The page sells the fourth book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” and while that may seem a legitimate use of the name, Barnes & Noble has a domain name, and this sounded to me like cyberhoarding.

A quick check of the Register.com database shows the name is held by a Georgetown, DE, outfit called Autoworks Inc., with no valid email address, and the registration expires this July.

The other main harrypotterbooks domains are all owned by Warner Brothers, which is producing the “Harry Potter” movie.

The movie star, Ms. Roberts, owns her own .com through her agents, Armstrong Hirsch Jackoway Tyerman & Wertheimer of Los Angeles, although there’s nothing online at the address.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Her .net is owned by something called “Ecstacy BBS” of Berlin, Germany, which posts a set of (very clean and ordinary) .jpeg photos of her. The .org is owned by a Christina Reeves of Santa Rosa, CA, and is empty. The .ws owner is listed only as Peter Roberts, and a placeholder site is there from register WorldSite.ws.

The .cc doesn’t identify its owner, but the address holds a condom-sale site that calls itself strongcondoms.com. The actual strongcondoms.com domain resolves to a Web-design shop called MatsWeb.com, owned by a Matt Geiser of Santa Barbara.

What have we learned?

First, huge companies, including barnesandnoble.com and Warner Brothers, are as likely as small entrepreneurs to abuse the domain-name system, grabbing names they don’t really need and don’t plan to advertise.

Second, it’s the small nations’ domains, such as that of Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands (.cc), which may be outside ICANN’s jurisdiction, that seem to pose the greatest threat to celebrities today, although there is potential abuse elsewhere.

Finally, I wonder how much of a problem Julia Roberts would have, or cybersquatting would cause, if domain names cost, say, $1,000 each per year instead of $35? I’m just asking.

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