11.1 A Web Site by Any Other Name . . .

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On a computer network, identifiers are cheap, plentiful, and often playful. Names can map anything to anything. The costs of creating them and changing the mappings are low. The tradition of playful naming goes back to the Internet's origins in academia. Hosts were named after mythological figures (Thor, Zeus, Athena), characters from fantasy stories (Frodo, Gandalf, Rodan, Godzilla), or whatever else struck the fancy of the system administrators. Aside from the initial freedom to assign names, the anonymous interaction fostered by computer networks encouraged play in the adoption of user identities. The familiar joke, 'on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog' encapsulates that reality. It is reinforced daily by experiences in chat rooms, public bulletin boards, and virtual worlds, where users can deliberately adopt and explore identities of their own creation (Turkle 1995; Lessig 1999). Certainly there is a dark side to the ability to conceal or change one's identity in cyberspace. Sexual predators can use it to stalk children, and securities hucksters can use it to unload stocks.

Identity theft, spoofing, and spamming are common problems. But the same technology that allows one to define and alter the identity one presents to the online public also leaves behind so many trails and fingerprints that law enforcement still comes out ahead, except for a few skilled and professional culprits.

America Online, the most mainstream and commercialized of the big Internet service providers, understands the role of names in cyberspace. AOL provides each of its customer accounts with up to six screen names. The names are entirely user-selected, subject only to a uniqueness constraint and some limits on obscenity. With the exception of a primary name, the identities can be altered, adopted, or deleted at will. Random searches of AOL's member list inevitably pulls up fun names: SexxyBone, Goofyrulzz, SugarMama84, Goofy4Ever, GretaGarbo18. (If someone else has already adopted the same name, numbers must be appended to it to make it unique; apparently, there are a lot of SugarMama and Greta Garbo wannabes on AOL.)

In the AOL name space, references to cartoon characters, movie stars, novelists, TV programs, and other icons of popular culture are abundant. Not all are complimentary. In his user profile, AOL member Fecking Goofy lists his location as 'the planet Pluto' and his hobby as 'shagging Minnie.' In open and free name spaces, as in real human interactions in conversation and physical space, people readily appropriate and incorporate into their own distinctive cultures references to 'owned' names and characters. These conversations are more a reflection and reinforcement of the popularity and value of cultural icons than a dilution of them. To regulate such activity would destroy the point of it.

Usenet newsgroups are another example of a relatively free name space. Usenet is a way of organizing text-based discussion or file exchange groups around specific topics, and distributing them to users. [1 ]There is a group devoted to the collectors of Pez candy containers, for example, named alt.collecting.pez. The naming of Usenet groups is more like domain name assignment than like the adoption of AOL user names. The names are hierarchical and point to content rather than to individuals. Unlike AOL screen names, they are part of a public name space, and new ones can be assigned only after some form of collective action. [2 ]

Like AOL screen names and user profiles, the Usenet name space commonly incorporates trademarked names. There is a newsgroup for people who hate Barney, the purple dinosaur character on children's television, named alt.dinosaur.barney.die.die.die. There is a rec.arts.disney.parks, a group not endorsed or operated by Disney, and a rec.arts.tv.soaps.abc. There is a comp.os.ms-windows newsgroup that is not operated or licensed by the Microsoft Corporation. Within the Usenet name space, it is commonly understood that names can refer to entities without pretending to be official, authorized versions of them.

In the domain name space, on the other hand, users are not allowed to claim that their name is Mickey Mouse and that they come from Disneyland. If anyone had tried to register barney.com or barney.org to run a Web site for derogatory comments about the dinosaur character, the trademark lawyers would have pounced. Thus, an interesting and fundamental discrepancy exists between the world of domain names and other computer naming systems. Why? It is not because the function of domain names is fundamentally different or more important than these other kinds of names. The differences stem from a combination of history and hysteria.

Chapter 6 described the explosion of domain name registrations under .com in 1995 and 1996, and the ensuing collision between domain name registrations and trademark rights. During that brief period, owning a simple domain name in the .com space was the equivalent of possessing a global (English) keyword. Many business people and intellectual property lawyers became convinced that domain names possessed a remarkable power to attract users and establish a global identity in cyberspace. This in turn provoked a concerted effort by intellectual property interests to make domain names a controlled vocabulary, and the data generated by a registration-known as WHOIS data-into an official record that can be used by intellectual property holders to identify and track down the registrant.

[1 ]Guidelines on Usenet Newsgroup Names, <http://www.faqs.org/faqs/usenet/creating-newsgroups/naming/part1/>.

[2 ]Guidelines for Usenet Group Creation, January 31, 1997. See Hardy (1993) for a discussion of some of the controversies that arose over the formation of new toplevel domains in the Usenet name space.



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Ruling the Root(c) Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace
Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace
ISBN: 0262134128
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 110

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