January 5, 2011

Cybersquatters: Legal Extortion on the Internet

Your name is Jane Doe and you’re ready to join the ranks of .com owners. Congrats! But then you find that someone else already owns your preferred domain name. That’s cool, you know you aren’t the only Jane Doe out there, but what if the owner of janedoe.com is a company that trolls the Internet for business and personal names to buy up and resell? A domain that would have cost you $14.95 a year is available to purchase, but it’s now $350. You’re just getting started and that’s a tad steep, plus, it doesn’t seem fair. It’s one thing if another Jane Doe beat you to the .com or even the .net or .org, but how can these companies or individuals get away with basically holding *your* name hostage until you or another Jane Doe ponies up?

On the face of it, it seems like slightly shady, but perfectly legal free enterprise, right? Ehrm, wrong. If you’re famous, that is.

A person whose name is widely recognized is protected under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, which is designed, among other things, to prevent registrants from profiting in bad faith from a domain name that is identical or similar to theirs.

But we’ve already established that you’re not rich and you’re not famous.

So what can YOU do? Not much, as it happens.

You can try contacting the domain service provider (registrar) that sold your name to the reseller in the first place, but they will likely refer you to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is the governing body behind UDRP, the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Policy. This is a policy that exists between the registrar and the domain-name holder (the reseller that owns your .com) that supposedly protects you. Well, it would if you were famous or trademarked, but you’d still have to pay a UDRP provider to handle your complaint, starting at around $1000, according to Wikipedia. Or you can really hemorrhage from the wallet by hiring an Internet lawyer.

The reseller that owns your domain name knows this! They count on the fact that it’s cheaper to pay them than it is to fight them, and have likely taken that into consideration when setting the price. Not only that, but they often have an exclusive deal with the registrar (like Tucows) to purchase domain names that have expired. Even if the original owner of janedoe.com defaulted on their registration, it never becomes available to the public to purchase. The instant the registration fully expires it’s sold to the extortionists. If you own a .net or other extension of the same domain name, you may even get unwanted emails attempting to sell the .com to you. (Beware, because this is usually a scam.)

In summation, there are no laws to protect the average Jane from these cybersquatters, and janedoe.com will sit unused in their domain inventory until someone pays the ransom, or, probably, hell freezes over.

Disclaimer: I'm not any sort of authority on this subject, merely a victim who educated herself to the best of her ability and wanted to pass on what (little) she learned. Nothing in the above should be constituted as advice in any way, shape or form.

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