U.N. Agency Pushes for New Net Domain Rules

The world’s intellectual property watchdog is pushing for a global agreement on country codes on the Internet to help counter “cybersquatting,” the unauthorized use of Net addresses, a top official said Wednesday.

Francis Gurry, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) assistant director-general, told a news conference the effort was aimed at preventing people using different country codes, or ccTLDs, to corner sites, often of prominent figures or businesses.

Once they have achieved registration, the so-called cybersquatters often attempt to sell their sites at high cost to people or firms with a more obvious right to them.

“We are trying to show registration bodies for the ccTLDs that it is in their interests to agree to a uniform dispute resolution procedure,” Gurry said. “So far, only 18 have come on board out of a total of 244.”

Gurry was speaking after a one-day conference on the issue at WIPO’s Geneva headquarters which was attended by firms involved in electronic commerce, government representatives, lawyers and Internet enthusiasts from around the world.

The agency already handles most dispute resolution for the Web’s other major address system — the generic top-level domain names, or gTLD’s, like .com, .org, .net and .int — under which it has settled over 200 cybersquat cases.

Among these resolved in online hearings and adjudications by experts appointed by the U.N. agency are cases brought by film stars, including actress Julia Roberts, against sites registered using their name. (See related stories in right column.)

But this does not extend to the ccTLDs — like .fr for France, .jp for Japan, .cn for China and .ch for Switzerland — which specialists say are already beginning to catch up in number with the long-dominant generic addresses.

Abuses Likely to Increase

Gurry said this process — and the potential for abuse — will speed up when registering addresses in alphabets other than Roman, like Russian and Arabic, or in other writing systems like Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Although there are 189 countries in the United Nations, many partly-independent and dependent territories, like the British-administered Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, have registered separately.

WIPO has posted a 12-page proposal for “Best Practices” in resolving ccTLD disputes on a special Web site and is seeking comment on it by April 30.

Although there are currently some 20 million Internet addresses registered under all systems, some estimates say that this will soar to some 250 million within two to three years.

Gurry said dispute resolution — in which WIPO currently has some 65 percent of the market for gTLDs — could turn into a lucrative business with 7,000 new addresses currently being registered every week.

Apart from WIPO, which charges $1,500 per case and does not cover its costs, according to Gurry, three companies — two in the United States and one in Canada — offer dispute resolution services in generic domain squabbles.

Gurry said the concern over similar activity on the country-code domains was first raised by an Australian government minister who found his name was registered under the .au address by a squatter.

Australia — backed among others by the European Union, the United States, Japan, Argentina and Brazil — asked WIPO to launch the new initiative, he added.

Most countries have registration under their codes — set by the U.N.’s International Standards Organization — handled by independent bodies, or firms, but some have sold this right to companies who have extended the codes’ cover.

Examples are the Pacific coral atoll state of Tuvalu, whose .tv is used to register sites involved in television, and the former Soviet republic of Moldova, whose .md is widely used by doctors in the United States, where its registrar is located.