Exploring Science Frontiers

The War Over Obscene Web Names Is On
by Mark Prigg

   LONDON A row has broken out over the right to register obscene domain names.

   Network Solutions, the American company that is in charge of registering .com addresses, has refused to register dozens of domains that include words it deems offensive.

   The company is now fighting a court battle with Seven Words, another American company, which claims that under its right to free speech it should be allowed to register any name.

   Nancy Huddlestone of Network Solutions says the company has always refused to to register offensive names.

   "However, we do look at the policies on a case by case basis," she says. "For instance, we used to reject domains with 'shit' in them. A lot of Japanese words contain that, and in particular a lot of shiitake mushroom growers were upset, so we let that through."

   Jay Spillane, the lawyer representing Seven Words, says Network Solutions has no right to withold the names.

   "In the US we all have a right to free speech, as part of the First Amendment, and this company is not allowing that," he says. "It's something it just can't do, and we will fight to get the names released."

   The names have been placed on hold pending the result of the court hearing.

   Spillane refused to reveal what his client was planning to do with the domains, but admitted they were "very lucrative". Several of the names refer to sexual acts that are often typed into a web browser by users looking for pornography.

   Ivan Pope, founder of NetNames, a UK-based company that registers domain names, believes Network Solutions is misusing its monopoly. "It was simply a case of being in the right place at the right time," he says. "It was given the contract to run the database of Net names before the Net really took off. It makes $70 per domain name registered, and with about 4m names registered, that is something it doesn't want to give up.

   "This is a company that is a law unto itself it pretty much makes up its own rules. It says what is offensive and what isn't. It was quite happy to register, for instance, which is probably far more offensive to people than the names it withholds.

   "Some perfectly acceptable names also have problems. For instance, we have had problems in the past registering names with the place Scunthorpe in them."

   Network Solutions was due to give other companies direct access to the database of Net names in 1998, but has managed to delay the move.

   The U.S. Justice Department is now to investigate the company's monopoly, and could demand it allows other Net-naming companies, such as Pope's NetNames, access to the database.

   In Britain, registration of domain names is handled by Nominet, a non-profit-making organization, which has no restrictions on domain-name registrations.

   A British company, funmail, a free Web-based e-mail service, recently registered hundreds of offensive names to stop them falling into the wrong hands.

   Funmail plans to give the names to a racial-equality organisation for safe keeping.


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