|In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when K-12 students first began surfing the Web to complete class assignments, they learned one lesson quickly: Do not go to WhiteHouse.com for information about the White House, the President, or anything related to government.
The difference between WhiteHouse.gov, the President’s official site, and WhiteHouse.com, a pornography site at the time, introduced many of us to the significance of generic top-level domains (gTLDs) – the end portion of a web address such as .COM, .GOV, or .EDU. (“WhiteHouse” is the second-level domain in that example.)
Although we didn’t know it at the time, the WhiteHouse.com confusion was precisely what brands worry about with the practice of cybersquatting: The bad-faith registration and use of a website address that closely resembles and relies on confusion regarding a well-known name. Today, WhiteHouse.com no longer hosts adult content, but the practice of cybersquatting continues to proliferate, costing businesses millions of dollars in lost revenue and preying on unsuspecting consumers.
The coming addition of 1,400 new top-level domains will launch exciting, new online business models and experiences for Internet users. Check out BeyondtheDot.com, a website dedicated to public education about the expansion of gTLDs, for more information and examples of the coming new extensions.
But the expansion will also increase the potential for cybersquatting. If we are to limit consumer fraud and confusion, businesses and the public must be made aware of its dangers.
About half of the new top-level domains (TLDs) will be completely controlled by brands, and thus will be safe, trusted sites because the brand will want to ensure a good online experience for customers. “Laptops.Apple,” for example, will be able to be verified as owned and operated by Apple, providing authentic content.
The other half of new gTLDs will be available to anyone to anchor their websites, which will put pressure on businesses to protect their brands in the new space and require consumers to be more vigilant.
Groups such as the Coaltion Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) help raise public awareness about the dangers of cybersquatting.
"Cybersquatting in the current space is already a major problem for brand owners and consumers, and the expanded space promises to bring more headaches if all Internet stakeholders don't to their part to raise awareness and increase deterrents against this harmful practice," said Josh Bourne, President of CADNA.
Some responsible companies are also voluntarily stepping up security efforts. Internet domain registry company Donuts Inc., for example, which has applied for more than 300 gTLDs, will block website registrations on its gTLDs that use the trademarks companies may submit to Donuts. This comprehensive protection will be very helpful for brands, as cybersquatters are eager to exploit any weakness they can find.
Similar in Second-Level Domain Only: WhiteHouse.com (above) and WhiteHouse.gov (below) offer information on significantly different topics.
To the unscrupulous, a second-level domain name registered under false pretenses can be lucrative. While the strategy used to be reselling (or, arguably, ransoming) the domain to the trademark holder, cybersquatters now most frequently operate sites that benefit from the frequent traffic of confused visitors. A less risqué WhiteHouse.com now promotes online dating sites alongside pay-per-click ads for loosely political- or White House-themed ventures, such as where online you can watch NBC’s longtime White House drama West Wing.
Many cybersquatters extend their bad-faith activities beyond trademark infringement, using seemingly innocuous domains to deliver malware, host phishing attacks, and devise scams to dupe visitors into providing personal information, placing their identities and financial information at risk.
The Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act of 1999 is one remedy available to trademark holders to reclaim their online marks. The arbitration panels of the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is another remedy, transferring domains to the trademark holder 80 percent of the time, according to ABC News.
Even with these remedies, cybersquatting continues to plague the online world, underscoring the need for continued education and other tools to help brands and consumers stay safe. In the meantime, Internet users must continue to scrutinize the authenticity of the websites they visit. Learn more about online safety at http://www.cadna.org. Learn more about the expanding gTLD program at http://www.beyondthedot.comand follow @BeyondtheDot on Twitter.
Cybersquatting in the News
These cases of bad-faith registration of domains made headlines in 2013:
- In October, designer fashion label Chanel had chanelstore.com and chanelfashion.com transferred to its control after a Maryland-based technology group registered the domains to create a directory of fashion retailers, despite having no affiliation with Chanel.
- In September, social networking site Pinterest wrested control of more than 100 domains associated with Pinterest – including variations and misspellings such as pinterests.com, piminterest.com and pinterest.es – and won $7.2 million in damages from a cybersquatter in China.
- In February, the University of Oklahoma sued a Dallas businessman for his registration and attempts to sell the domain SoonerNetwork.com. Easily confused with the name of OU’s football radio network, the university alleges this is a profit-motivated endeavor by a supporter of OU’s rival, the University of Texas.