What's in a Domain?

Jeff Tolbert

Last December a young Boston computer programmer named Zack Exley staked a claim to a small piece of Internet real estate--the address www.gwbush.com. Exley had noticed that the site wasn't yet registered by Texas governor George W. Bush and figured he might be able to make a little money selling it back to the Republican presidential hopeful. His deceptively official-looking site, put together with a little help from subversive Web designers RTMark (rtmark.com), satirizes Bush's own site (www.georgewbush.com) with mock press releases promoting such things as the nonexistent TV miniseries, "The Trial of GWBush."

What Exley never envisioned was that his prank would launch a political and media maelstrom. Over the past four months, gwbush.com has been the focus of a contentious and well-publicized debate about online ethics, guerrilla capitalism, and freedom of speech; in May, the Bush camp even filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, arguing that the site's designers constituted a "political committee" intent on damaging his campaign. (The commission has yet to rule on the matter.)

At one point, Exley was half-seriously offering to sell the domain name to the Bush campaign for $80,000. The Dubyah folks didn't bite, and today Exley says gwbush.com isn't for sale. The Bush campaign did, however, snap up several other domains including bushsucks.com, bushsucks.org, and bushblows.com, all of which will take you to the official campaign site.

In the wake of the flap over Exley's rogue site, the practice of "cybersquatting"--claiming domain names associated with an easily recognizable public figure or company for the purpose of making money, poking fun, etc.--has come under renewed scrutiny. Anyone can register a name by filing an electronic form with Herndon, Virginia-based Network Solutions Inc. (www.networksolutions.com), the government-designated clearinghouse for Internet domain allocation. Fees run $70 for the initial registration of a name; each annual renewal is $35. Disputes over domain names have spawned several lawsuits around the nation, including one involving the Mall of America (see sidebar); just last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued what's viewed as a squatter-friendly ruling, holding that there was nothing illegal about registering names that "happen to be trademarks." Meanwhile, earlier this month, the U.S. Senate passed the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, aimed at curbing the registration of names that are "confusingly similar" to trademarked words or phrases. The measure has yet to be taken up by the House of Representatives.

For now, the cyberspace high jinks continue. Iin the wake of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., opportunists hastily registered domain names like kennedyaccident.com and put them up for sale online through eBay and other sites. The domain-name auction business is a burgeoning subgenre of online capitalism: last week, a quick survey of eBay found more than 1,000 names up for bid, including jon-jon.com, and the coveted "absofuckinglutely.com." Asking prices ranged from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars, though many of the offerings failed to attract bidders.

All of which set City Pages to wondering what local politicians were doing to protect their domain-name look-alikes. After all, in the wake of the Web-savvy campaign of Jesse Ventura, every politician knows the importance of a smart online presence, right? Maybe.

In the biggest election looming on the state's horizon, the 2000 U.S. Senate race, incumbent Republican Rod Grams's campaign has at least made an effort at staking out likely cyberterritory. The URL www.grams2000.org will take you to the official Web site of the Minnesota Republican Party. The campaign has also secured rodgrams2000.com and rodgrams2000.org, though neither is active as of yet. (Grams's official Senate page is at www.senate.gov/~grams/.)

But when the Grams folks checked out rodgrams.org, they discovered that someone else had gotten there first. Joel Cary, information systems director for the state GOP and a Grams volunteer, says that name is registered to a D.C.-area outfit calling itself Rodgrams.net.org; he hasn't figured out who's behind the name yet. "Obviously these guys are just camping out, hoping that we'll give them some money," says Cary, who adds that the campaign isn't particularly concerned with the cybersquatters.

The Grams campaign has, however, paid $300 to a Seattle-based Web-hosting and development firm called Adega LLC for grams2000.com. "We basically just held onto it for 'em," explains the company's technical director, Greg Trangmoe. "We protect domain names for certain candidates." Adega also sold forbes2000.com to Steve Forbes's presidential campaign, but the firm's president, Brian Keys, says he can't discuss how much they were paid.

Keys says that in general, the domain-name market is overhyped. "Everybody hears about drugs.com selling for $820,000 or something, but the average name is not selling for anything. There's too many alternatives out there." He adds that his company is getting out of a sideline he finds to be "more hassle than it's worth."  

That's not the case, apparently, for the Friend to Friend Foundation, a Kansas City-area nonprofit that holds the rights to rodgrams.com. Foundation chairman Rob Moritz, whose day job with Dramatic Impact Ministries involves spreading the good word by dressing up as the Apostle Paul, says he started registering the names of various celebrities and politicians two years ago with the goal of keeping them out of the hands of pranksters. "The name is our gift to [the celebrities], no strings attached," he says. "We felt a concern, because, gosh, somebody that was an enemy of the United States, Saddam Hussein, could register the name of one of our senators."

Indeed, it appears that were it not for Moritz's intervention, the U.S. Senate would be wide open on the dot-com flank. "We just did any senators that happened to be available at the time, which happened to be about 80 of 'em," says Moritz. (Friend to Friend also has registered paulwellstone.com; www.wellstone.com takes you to a tour-bus operator specializing in Japanese charter groups.) He declines to say how many names he's registered altogether, but volunteers that 75 to 80 domains have been "returned" to their rightful owners including frankieavalon.com and peterfalk.com. He also won't discuss what kind of remuneration has been involved, saying only that he invites--but does not demand--donations.

But that wasn't the impression Seattle Times technology reporter Peter Lewis got when he received an e-mail from Friend to Friend earlier this year, notifying him that peterlewis.com could be his for a "fair price." In a February column, Lewis reported that his offer of $100 was rebuffed; instead, the domain went to New York Times tech writer Peter H. Lewis.

Peter H. Lewis, for his part, explains that Friend to Friend initially approached him seeking a donation of "several thousand dollars" to itself or charities it supported. Lewis ultimately ponied up $100, plus an equal donation to the American Diabetes Association in Friend to Friend's name. Concludes Lewis: "Paying them for peterlewis.com remains one of the more shameful acts I've committed since I was, as George W. Bush describes it, young and irresponsible."

As for rodgrams.com, says the campaign's Cary, he would like to reclaim the domain from Friend to Friend. Last week a foundation staffer informed Cary that the group would be happy to turn the name over as a "gift," but that "if you would like to reimburse our costs, or help with an amount of your choice, it will be appreciated." The group's expenses, the letter continued, had run around $650--a figure Cary says sounds "reasonable."

Grams isn't the only local Senate hopeful negotiating potential cyberlandmines. Most of the candidates for the Democratic nomination have already put together campaign sites: University of Minnesota medical-ethics specialist Steve Miles offers position papers at www.milesforsenate.org, U.S. Rep. David Minge asks visitors to sign up at www.minge.org, and former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug's beaming mug adorns www.lillehaug.org.

But Ken Martin, field director for the Lillehaug campaign, notes that the organization recently learned that both lillehaug.net and lillehaug.com have been registered by a political consulting firm called Electnet. At Electnet's Clark Summit, Pennsylvania, office, a man who identifies himself as the firm's president and gives his name only as "Chris" explains that the company doesn't want a big ransom for the names: Instead, "we want to help [candidates] develop those names into active Web sites." Chris says Electnet has contacted the Lillehaug campaign and that "the ball's in their court."

Lillehaug's troubles may be nothing compared to those faced by Minge: While www.minge.org will take you to the official campaign site, www.minge.com offers decidedly apolitical "Real Amateur Wives, Girlfriends, and Lovers." The fact comes as news to Minge political director Mike Kennedy: "This is the first I've heard of it," he told City Pages recently. "I guess we're going to have to decide what, if any, recourse is possible."

Another name often mentioned in discussions of the 2000 Senate race is that of Michael Ciresi, the Minneapolis attorney famed for his firm's work on the state's tobacco lawsuit. A pair of likely sites, www.ciresi2000.org and .com, are registered to one Peter Lucas of Bridgewater, New Jersey, a recent M.B.A. graduate who says he's taken to domain-name speculation while looking for a job. (Ciresi, who has not declared his plans, did not return several phone calls.) Lucas has also snapped up lillehaug2000.com, davidlillehaug.com, and miles2000.com, not to mention wellstone2002.org and .com and even ventura2002.com and .org--even though it's hardly clear that either Minnesota's senior senator or its governor will be seeking reelection to their current jobs.

In all, Lucas says, he's holding 150 to 200 names including "a lot of general business names;" he refuses to disclose exactly how much he'd charge to sell any one of them, but says $5,000 to $10,000 would probably be a reasonable value. So far, he confesses, he hasn't sold a single domain. But in the long term, he figures, politicians will want what he's got. Asked how he feels about the ethics of cybersquatting, Lucas allows that "it's a bummer that people have to pay for their sites." But, he concludes, "if I'm not going to do it, some one else is."

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