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Pain in the Butt

February 22, 2012

The term “cybersquatting” -- buying and selling Internet domains that correspond with existing brands -- is not the most elegant coinage in the English language. University of Hawaii officials have found that cybersquatters can be tasteless decorators, as well.

In January, the university found that somebody had purchased UniversityofHawaii.xxx and was offering to sell the domain on eBay. Earlier this month, the domain went live with photos of nude couples having sex in various Hawaii-like settings, according to Hawaii News Now -- prompting a cease-and-desist letter from university lawyers that has apparently persuaded the site to shut down.

Hawaii was the first victim of a virtual land grab for a new category of Web domain that ends with “dot-xxx,” a suffix meant to signal pornographic content. The university appears to have successfully persuaded the proprietor of UniversityofHawaii.xxx to shut down the site. But Educause, an influential higher ed technology group, says the new dot-xxx addresses, as well as other newly available “generic top-level domain names” (gTLDs), are turning out to be an unequivocal pain for colleges and universities.

“The effects of these initiatives thus far have been modest, but they have been entirely negative. So far as we know, no college or university has benefited from either initiative,” wrote Gregory Jackson, vice president of policy at Educause, in blog post on Friday. “Rather, institutions have been exposed to risk and incurred costs without receiving any value in return.”

After speculating in the fall that colleges and universities had little to fear from the new dot-xxx domains, Jackson began soliciting feedback from institutions in the Educause network to gauge the effects of the new virtual real estate, which became active in December.

“Lots [of institutions] looked at the low costs and decided to buy or claim a bunch of domains, usually variations on institution or team names,” Jackson told Inside Higher Ed. “A couple were approached by squatters, but ignored them.” So far, he says, the University of Hawaii is the only instance of a cybersquatter actually posting porn at a university-themed domain.

Because it had allowed its federally registered trademark on “University of Hawaii” to lapse eight years ago, the university was unable to defend against interlopers by reserving “UniversityofHawaii.xxx” last fall during a special pre-registration period.

But officials at several universities have pointed out that it would be expensive and difficult to try to block all possible variations on their brand, even if the trademarked phrases were secure. That was Hawaii’s rationale for declining to buy up dot-xxx properties even when non-trademarked phrases became available for purchase.

“After due consideration, we decided to join those institutions of higher education that decided not to redirect educational resources to what would ultimately be a fruitless attempt to stop all possible abuses,” said M.R.C. Greenwood, the Hawaii system president, in a statement following the cybersquatting incident.

“It is unfortunate that we must now divert resources and energy from serving the our students and the public to address this attempt to misuse the University’s good name and mislead the public,” Greenwood later added.

On Feb. 3, a university attorney sent the proprietor of UniversityofHawaii.xxx a cease-and-desist letter asserting that the website “violates federal, state, and/or common law rights of the University of Hawai‘i… including [those conferred by] the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. § 1051 et seq.) and the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2006.” A week later, UniversityofHawaii.xxx was taken down.

The address now redirects to “IHadYourMama.com,” which appears to be under construction. “Why can’t everyone just get along :(” reads a note on the site. E-mails to the owner were not immediately returned.

Dot-xxx domains are not the only new kind of domain being granted by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Universities also have the opportunity  -- theoretically -- to buy domains with custom suffixes (i.e. dot-Stanford) rather than the traditional dot-edu.

But Jackson found that these potentially more useful new kinds of gTLD have attracted almost no interest from universities. “Only two mentioned it at all, and neither is proceeding,” he says.

In Friday’s blog post, Jackson recommends that ICANN impose additional regulations to protect university brands from cybersquatters:

  • Automatically block any domain within a gTLD that corresponds to a registered trademark.
  • Automatically block any domain name within a gTLD that corresponds to an existing dot-edu domain. “That is, if there is already a domain bigstate.edu, then the registrar for the dot-xxx domain, for example, should reject an application for bigstate.xxx.”
  • For dot-xxx registrations, impose a waiting period between application and registration during which universities (and others) may object to the registration of a particular domain.
  • For non-porn gTLDs, reject applications for any trademarked suffix unless the applicant is the trademark holder.

For the universities, Jackson said it might be necessary to squat on dot-xxx sites themselves before someone else does, even if doing so is tedious and expensive.

“Colleges and universities should wherever possible trademark the official name of their institution, the variations on that name and nicknames in common use, and do the same for team names, named schools, departments, institutes, and so forth, and distinctive mottos or slogans,” he wrote.

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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