SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., March 17 -- People should be able to use the Internet without fear of harm. Simple enough, right? No less an Internet luminary than Vint Cerf, often referred to as one of the fathers of the Internet, said so this week at the 40th meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the non-profit industry group that administers domain names -- .com, .org, .xxx.
Vint's statement has picked up some resonance in the hallways here. That's not surprising since, depending on whose statistics you believe, about 30% of the general public doesn't want to use the Internet out of fear: Some criminal could use it to hijack their passwords, steal their retirement, expose their children to pornography and violence.
At a more basic level, many people are confused by the images, emails and websites that pass by them, and can easily be lured into thinking they are engaged in, say, online banking, when in fact they are surrendering their most valuable personal data to a criminal syndicate.That's a real threat, and an enormous social cost that ranges into the billions of dollars per year. And one of the ways criminals make it happen is by abusing the domain name system -- put simply, all the "addresses" of all the websites out there.
Let's take a look at this lawsuit, filed here in California last month against Above.com, which is a registrar -- a company you can buy a domain name from. Above.com is part of a larger company in Australia called Trellian. It's also accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which from here on will be referred to as "the corporation," though it's often called by its acronym, ICANN ("eye-can").
Despite being accredited by the corporation, though, the lawsuit alleges Above.com is a "serial cybersquatter." The suit contains an excellent explanation of what that is, but basically it means someone picks a well-known trademark like Verizon and then goes about buying Internet addresses that resemble the trademark. A variation on this is "typosquatting," when someone buys an Internet address that resembles the trademark when it is mis-typed.
Verizon's lawsuit alleges that one of Trellian's executives -- actually, according to this LinkedIn profile, its president and founder -- was involved in registering a variety of domain names, including myhomeverizon.net, downloadverizon.com, homeverison.net and dozens of other addresses that more subtly played off various Verizon trademarks. He probably should not have used his company credit card for payment -- apparently to one of his own companies -- with Trellian's corporate address on it, though.
Now, someone can quite easily and legally create a "parked" page at one of those domains, put pay-per-click advertisements on it, and make money anytime some hapless Internet user winds up on the page and becomes confused when it isn't Verizon. When the user clicks on another link on the page to get away, most likely that will register a "click" that translates into a small amount of money paid by the advertiser to the owner of the parked page. That's why the Internet is cluttered with garbage parked pages. In an isolated sense, this is not illegal.
But when bogus domains multiply, and smart criminals like the ones that keep hammering Facebook employ sophisticated techniques like fast-flux to hide themselves, the game is afoot.
Verizon's lawsuit doesn't allege criminal activity like that, but this kind of behavior on the part of a registrar like Above.com demonstrates that all a criminal might need is a registrar willing to look the other way. While taking money, of course.
The story gets even better. The lawsuit alleges Above.com also operates a privacy service, which means for an extra fee, the owner of a website address can make his or her identity untraceable by you and me. When you're talking about a company that's across a border somewhere in the world, like Australia, that can make the cops' job very difficult. Verizon's lawsuit says About's privacy service has been named in 68 trademark disputes, and lost all of them.
And parent company Trellian owns and operates a "monetization" service, which means it makes money off the pay-per-click arrangements as well.
On the other side of this argument are some human rights and privacy advocates, who say anonymity on the Internet must be defended. And for some uses, of course it should be, otherwise it would be difficult to engage in, for instance, citizen protests against oppressive governments, as we've seen in the Middle East.
Consumers are directly affected as well, since they can learn important information from protest sites that also might infringe on a trademark. (In Verizon's case, it bought and now owns the domain "verizonsucks.com," so if you wanted to set up a website with that name and address to complain about the company's service, you would have to buy it from the company, and it just ain't gonna sell it to you.)
But when you've got registrars that game the system, and enter false information into the records to cover their tracks, that's a big problem.
That a registrar such as Above.com can behave as Verizon's lawsuit alleges and still be "accredited" by the non-profit corporation that's supposed to protect the public interest, means you've got a broken system. Consumers rely on accreditations all the time for all sorts of things. But ICANN's accreditations appear, in frequent circumstances, to be meaningless.
We have to rethink the social costs of anonymity on the Internet. It's used for many things besides freedom of expression. Personally, I don't really care about the rights of corporations to protect their trademarks so much -- they've got money for that sort of thing. But you should care about your right not to be scammed every time you open a bogus email pretending to be your bank sending you a request for more information.
If you're interested in these issues, get involved in ICANN. Above.com is not alone in this kind of alleged behavior. The executives who profit from the domain name system dominate the ICANN scene. Isn't it about time we start taking back the Internet?
Thanks to Domain Name Wire.com for posting a copy of the lawsuit.
Beau Brendler is chairman of the North American Internet users' advisory committee to ICANN, and for eight years was executive producer of the WebWatch project at Consumers Union. He also vblogs for Internet Evolution and writes for its Thinkernet, and also writes for AOL News.
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