Cybersquatting Won’t Save the World

Why Cybersquatting Won't Save the World

Last November, according to Reuters, after Donald Trump won the presidential election, the editor-in-chief of the far-right Breitbart News Network announced that the outlet would expand into Germany and France, hoping to “monetize the anger and anti-immigrant sentiment unleashed by Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign.” Some on the left in France are not keen to see Breitbart expand into their country — especially if it might help the far-right National Front.

So in February of this year, a French student who goes by the name Antonin decided to do something about it. According to The Verge, in an attempt to prevent Breitbart from launching a French version of its website, Antonin registered three domain names: breitbart.fr, breitbartnews.fr and breitbartnewsnetwork.fr.

Purchasing domains to profit from a sale, or cause inconvenience, is called cybersquatting. Typosquatting is a similar activity that involves buying mis-spelled (eg, wallmart.com) or mis-identified (utube.com) versions of domain names. Antonin, the activist who’s cybersquatting (breitbart.fr) and typosquatting (breitbartnews.fr and breitbartnewsnetwork.fr) these domains, says that he intends to use them to promote anti-hate speech groups. He also hopes that buying these domains will make it more difficult for Breitbart to expand into France — potentially influence the 2017 French presidential elections.

Cybersquatting Usually Fails

Whether you agree with Antonin’s politics or not, attempts to cybersquat or typosquat business domains are rarely profitable or successful. Juicy, headline-grabbing, high-value sales of such domains are dwarfed by the number of cases that are quietly resolved in a domain name dispute.

Antonin says that nobody has contacted him about buying the Breitbart domains. And there are two huge reasons why that is unlikely to change

1. Cybersquatting Infringes Intellectual Property

Breitbart.com is owned by Breitbart News Network, LLC, registered in Los Angeles, California.

Under World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) rules for .fr domain name disputes, Breitbart News Network could reclaim Antonin’s domains by proving that they infringe the company’s intellectual property rights. Given that the domains are practically identical to the name of the company (Breitbart News Network, LLC actually owns only breitbart.com), this would likely be straightforward. Each claim would cost a couple of thousand dollars per domain, or less.

Of course, Breitbart News Network, LLC could opt to make a larger financial offer for the domains, and pay it directly to the registrant, rather than going through the dispute process. That would enable it to wrench them out of Antonin’s hands more quickly. But from a legal standpoint, placing a claim using Parl Expert is the cheapest option, and it would save Breitbart getting media attention for essentially “giving in” to the activist.

2. Breitbart Doesn’t Use ccTLDs For Its Regional Sites

Breitbart News Network, LLC already runs at least four regional websites. They’re all hosted off the main .com domain (for example, breitbart.com/london). So there’s little evidence that it needs ccTLDs (eg, breitbart.fr) at all.

To back this up, we know from The Verge‘s investigation other people already own ccTLDs that could conceivably be claimed by the company if it really wanted them. For example, breitbart.de is owned by a web hosting company, and breitbartnews.de is owned by an activist group, HoGeSatzbau. Both of these domains are apparently uncontested.

While breitbart.co.uk is owned by Breitbart News Network, LLC, it simply redirects to the /london site. It hardly seems that ccTLDs are important to the company.

Could Breitbart Claim Its French Domain Names?

Domain name dispute processes differ from country to country. But they are designed to make it very easy for domains to be reassigned to intellectual property owners. If you own a trademark for a word or phrase, you have an automatic right to all of the domains relevant to that trademark in many countries that have a formal dispute process.

If you don’t own the trademark, but you already own similar domains for business purposes, the likelihood is that the domain will be handed over to you anyway. That includes typosquatted domains that look similar to one that you own. This is because registrars will consider whether the disputed domain was registered in “bad faith.”

What “bad faith” means that the buyer’s intentions were to cause inconvenience for businesses or consumers. Registering a domain to block another person’s use would normally be considered “bad faith.” So would typosquatting with a very similar word in order to serve a different site than the one the visitor was trying to reach.

If Breitbart did launch a claim under the French Parl Expert system, it would likely be a relatively straightforward and inexpensive procedure, and it’s likely that Antonin’s actions would be considered “bad faith” based on the given rules. That isn’t a comment on the ethics of his larger effort to fight what he sees as discrimination, but simply an evaluation of the normal domain name dispute procedure.

So Why Do People Still Pay For Domains?

There have been some examples of domains changing hands for huge sums of money in recent years, so it’s tempting to think that all branded or disputed domains are extremely valuable. But there are few profitable transactions now compared to the early days of the internet, largely because the dispute process is so effective.

ClintonKaine.com

But there are exceptions, like ClintonKaine.com. It was registered by a Bernie Sanders supporter, and then offered up for sale 5 years after he bought it. The asking price was $90,000, and the offer received a flurry of media attention. ClintonKaine.com was eventually purchased by Donald Trump’s digital campaign director, Brad Parscale, for $15,000.

First, note that ClintonKaine.com was acquired by an opponent in the campaign, not the person you’d logically expect would buy it. So the dispute process and “bad faith” analysis wouldn’t have been relevant. But in many ways, the PR involved in buying competitors’ domains is far more important in politics. One campaign can generate some impressive headlines from the purchase, prevent their opponent’s use of a key domain, and show themselves to be in good financial health.

RandPaul.com

A more typical case occurred to Senator Rand Paul in 2015, when he paid $100,000 for RandPaul.com. The details of this case are not publicly known. We do know that the domain name was at one point owned by fans of Senator Paul, and very likely still owned by fans when the domain was sold. Raising a dispute against your own supporters could cause a PR nightmare at a sensitive time. The candidate also might have issues claiming “bad faith” during a dispute, because the registrant had good reason to buy the name — the same reason that the candidate did.

There are other possible reasons. The campaign might not have wanted to waste the time that the dispute process would take. It’s also possible they might have wanted the publicity. And, in Rand Paul’s case, it was a show of his financial strength even before his campaign had officially begun.

In situations like that, offering the registrant a generous cash payment might be the best way to keep everyone happy.

Domains Can’t Save the World

In buying up Breitbart domains, Antonin undoubted thought that he had the French people’s best interests at heart. And starting new websites that condemn racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination is certainly a worthwhile activity.

But when disputes arise, don’t fool yourself. Cybersquatting and typosquatting cases are analyzed in simple, commercial terms.

Regardless of the domain names it owns, a company like Breitbart has the resources it needs to expand if it wants to. And faced with such a clear cut infringement of intellectual property, few if any domain dispute panels would find in Antonin’s favor anyway.

Image based on A Pike’s Peak Prospector in Front of His Log Home, circa 1900, by William Henry Jackson. It is in the public domain.
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