Coping with domain name predators: front running domains
ICANN’s recently published report on domain-name front-running concludes that there was not sufficient information to prove that front-running was an appreciable problem. “Front-running” is the practice whereby nefarious entities find out which unregistered domain names have been searched by potential registrants and then register the names themselves with a view to extracting financial offers from the would-have-been registrants. Simon Halberstam, head of Domain Name law at the Weblaw Group (weblaw.co.uk) comments “obviously, where this constitutes “cyber-squatting” of established brand names, these opportunist registrants don’t have a legal leg to stand on but can often extract sums from the brand owners who know that to pay off the charlatans may be less expensive than enforcing their legal rights”.
Front-running is not to be confused with “domain tasting” whereby since 2003, the contract between ICANN and each unsponsored TLD registry has added an Add Grace Period (AGP) of five days during which a registrant can delete a newly registered domain and get a full refund. This provision was clearly intended to allow registrars to correct the occasional typographical or spelling error in registrations. However, speculators realised that this allows them to try out any domain name for five days without charge. These “domainers” quickly started using automated software to register thousands of domain names. During the grace period, they will typically put up web pages full of pay-per-click advertisements, determine which of the domain names generate worthwhile revenue, keep those and delete the rest. Often, the domain names registered are “typosquats” i.e. slightly misspelled versions of existing genuine domain names registered in order to attract traffic from people whose typing or spelling skills may leave something to be desired. Simon Halberstam comments that “domain tasting” is now such an abused practice that it is often exploited by the same characters who operate “front-running” practices.
How should businesses faced with such predatory behaviour respond? Simon Halberstam recommends a combination of preventative domain name and trademark registrations. “Brand owners should be particularly careful and register all the principal domain variants including .com, .co.uk, .info and .biz as well as considering .mobi and .eu. However, as it is not viable to register all permutations, careful consideration should be given to trademark registrations as these can effectively provide a monopoly shield against all domain name predators.”