SFGate027

Masters of Our Domain RealNames means just what the name says


Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Tuesday, August 31, 1999

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/1999/08/31/domainname.dtl

Clint Reilly’s attempt to steal San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s online thunder is beginning to backfire.

Reilly, a real estate mogul and ex-political consultant running against Brown, recently tried to flummox the mayor by registering the WillieBrown.com domain name, or URL.

What the hapless candidate probably doesn’t realize yet is there’s no upside to his move. Thanks to new technology, his address-grabbing gambit isn’t working.

What’s more, his ill-fated strategy foreshadows failure for other ethically challenged bunko artists hoping to mislead web surfers, or get rich quick, by registering domain names that more rightfully belong to others.

Cybersquatters like Reilly are under attack from several quarters; most notably RealNames Corporation, a San Carlos-based company that’s quickly cleaning up the Internet’s domain-naming and addressing system.

RealNames is building a new, easier-to-use addressing system for the Internet that is catching on quickly. Now, web surfers don’t have to remember if the site they are looking for is dot com, dot org or dot something else. They also don’t have to remember if the address has a slash in it, or two slashes, or an .html extension.

Instead, web surfers using the RealNames’ technology simply type the actual name of the person or company they’re looking for in a search engine or in their web browser’s address line. Although a lot of users aren’t aware of it yet, the current versions of the most popular web browsers already feature slightly different, early versions of this powerful new technology.

For example, instead of typing “http://www.williebrown.com/” into your browser’s URL address line, try simply typing the words “Willie Brown.”

If you’re using the latest version of Netscape Navigator you’ll be directed immediately to the genuine Re-Elect Willie Brown web site. If you’re using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, you’re also led, although a bit more indirectly, to Brown’s official homepage. Clint Reilly’s ersatz Willie Brown web site, on the other hand, vanishes into the digital mist.

That’s because the Brown campaign registered his name with RealNames last week. It’s also because RealNames requires that registrants have a legitimate claim on a domain name, which it calls a “keyword,” before it sells an address.

You can still view Reilly’s anti-Brown site, of course, by typing the more cumbersome http://www.williebrown.com/ directly into your browser’s URL address line. But, ironically, you have to know the exact URL for Reilly’s anti-Brown site before you can find it. Most people, of course, don’t look for things they already know. In the same vein, those who do use their browsers or search engines to look are now more likely to find Brown’s real site, not the fake one.

RealNames has so far negotiated deals with several of the largest Internet portals, including MSN, Altavista, Looksmart and the Go Network. Its online address-finding system is already generating more than 40 million hits a day, mostly from people who don’t even know they’ve used the company’s services. The early success explains why RealNames recently attracted $70 million in venture capital.

The truth is, it had to come to this.

There is far too much at stake on the Internet now to allow larcenous cybersquatters to rule the day.

Cybersquatters, of course, like to portray themselves as just a new breed of high-tech entrepreneur. But if that’s true, then Bonnie and Clyde were in the banking industry.

There is no honor in ripping off someone’s name and trying to sell it back to its rightful owner, or in confusing the public.

To be sure, a few cybersquatters have enjoyed some success. The most recent, well-publicized case involved the guy who sold Dunkin Donuts their own domain name after using it to trash the company online.

But successful shakedowns like that take place only because some skittish businesses aren’t willing to wait, and pay, for justice in our slow-moving and expensive courts. For them, given the current absence of strong legal precedents about online identities, it’s easier to just pay off the name-poachers.

Eventually, though, the courts will almost certainly reach the same conclusion they’ve reached in the offline world — that people can’t legally pretend to be what or who they’re not. You can’t set up a restaurant on Market Street, sell hamburgers and call yourself McDonald’s. It’s only a matter of time until the court enforces similar rules online.

That’s good news for anyone concerned about the future of the Internet, or the next generation of web-enabled technologies it’s spawning, such as Internet-connected cell phones. As the RealNames’ PR team loves to point out, most people looking for stores that sell, for example, Sony Camcorders, would much rather pick up their cell phone and bark, “Sony Camcorder,” rather than try to remember “www.sel.sony.com/SEL/consumer/camcorder/.

There is always the chance RealNames will crash and burn, despite the elegance of their solution. That could happen if the company gets too greedy, for example, by charging too much to register a “keyword.” The $100 per address per year they now charge already seems a bit high.

But even if RealNames implodes, there are other solutions on the immediate horizon. The Net’s new domain-name rule-making body, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is just a few weeks away from establishing a mandatory arbitration procedure to help people and companies rapidly and inexpensively protect trademarks in cyberspace.

There are also companies like Redwood City-based Tumbleweed Communications Corporation (http://www.tumbleweed.com//), which are developing new technologies that use “digital certificates” to enable web site operators and web surfers to automatically verify true identities online. And, of course, eventually the anticipated court rulings will kick in.

There are probably still some handsome fortunes to be made registering compelling, original URLs, such as the “drugs.com” domain name Eric MacIver, a 21-year-old entrepreneur in Mesa, Arizona, just sold to a pharmaceutical company for more than $800,000.

But taking advantage of that opportunity requires creativity, timing and a measure of good luck. Soon, very soon, simple thievery won’t cut it anymore.

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