Medieval alchemists and magicians believed in the power of the word. The right combination of letters could be used to protect, to attack or to change the world.
Today we know words do not allow us to exert influence over the physical world, but they still give us power. The words we choose affect the people who hear them. Words can excite, amuse, persuade, offend or infuriate. They inflame passions and we must use them carefully.
Some words in particular offend sensitive ears more than others. In the United States, we are free to utter them no matter whom they bother — so long as we are willing to live with the consequences to our social standing. Yet this right is sometimes curtailed for the supposed greater good, and this tendency has insidiously reached into cyberspace.
If you are a person who is easily distressed by language, you should skip ahead to the crossword puzzle where you will not read anything vulgar. To cover our material here, we will be using some words that will mortify more genteel readers. You’ve been warned.
When you start surfing in cyberspace, you enter what is called a “domain name” into your Web browser. Addresses like www.yahoo.com and www.nightmare.org are used to identify individual Web sites much as we use a postal address to identify a particular building.
In the early days of the Internet, some enterprising individuals recognized the importance of registering good names and took advantage of the situation.
For a long time, entering pga.com into your Web browser did not take you to the Professional Golf Association home page, but that of the Potato Growers of Alberta who conveniently put a message at the bottom of the page, “If you are looking for the other PGA, click here.” Eventually the spud group sold out.
An online acquaintance of mine who goes by the name shkoo — I have no idea what his real name is — had access to mormon.com and holy.com. He put a softcore pornography site at www.mormon.com. Eventually a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints caved, buying the domain name for an obscene amount of money. Holy.com is still for sale.
Not everyone gives in so easily. Corporate warfare has moved into the digital age and companies frequently register domain names that are close misspellings of their competitors’ names. The online bookstore Books.com registered emozom.com and ammazon.com, redirecting any would-be book buyers to its own site. A phone call from lawyers at Amazon.com put a stop to the redirecting, but Books.com still owns the names.
Even here in Minneapolis, small companies are jumping into the fray. Amazon Bookstore filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against Amazon.com on April 7. Although the independent feminist bookshop never formally registered its name with the federal trademark register, it claims a “common law” right to the name “Amazon” as far as books go. Amazon.com could be in serious trouble if the courts agree and award the unspecified damages and the demand that Amazon.com stop using the name “Amazon” which Amazon Bookstore claims.
Racial politics get played out in the domain-name game too. The American Civil Liberties Union has registered nigger.com, .org, and .net. None is used for a Web page and presumably it will stay that way, though having those names point to a dead-end site with a simple message like, “You racist pig,” might be worthwhile.
For the past five years, one company has overseen the domain-name fracas — Network Solutions. Anyone who wants to register a domain name has had to talk to them. So long as the name is only letters, numbers or a dash; does not begin or end with a dash; and is less than 26 characters long including the .com, .net or .org; anyone can pay $70 to register it for two years.
But the pickings have gotten pretty slim. A study by Wired News last month found that of the 25,500 words in a standard dictionary, only 1,762 remained available with a .com attachment. You could have your own Web page called chauvinism.com, emasculate.com, gerundive.com or obfuscatory.com, but who would want to?
Brokerage companies have even sprung up, dealing in desirable names. You can buy worldssexiest.com (asking price: $500,000) or barcam.com ($50,000) online. If you are not too attached to the .com ending, things get a little better. Some small countries have started selling off domain names with their countries top level name. St. Helena, .sh, and Montserrat, .ms, to name but two, are making some good money from domain-name registrants.
With ultimate control over the business, however, Network Solutions has created a few extra rules. The company will not let you register any old name.
It all goes back to a stand-up monologue by the comedian George Carlin who detailed “seven dirty words you can’t say on television.” The Federal Communications Commission has restricted the use of the seven words on radio and television since a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. For the record, they are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, mother-fucker and tits. You will not hear Dan Rather talk about those fucking, shit-eating cocksuckers in some country or other on the evening news.
Network Solutions has adopted a similar practice with domain names. If you want to register something that contains one of the seven words — six really; shit is acceptable because it used in the phonetic English spelling of many Japanese words like shitake — forget it. A few domain names like fucker.com were grandfathered in because they were registered prior to Network Solution’s taking over the domain-name business from the National Science Foundation, but new ones are out of the question.
This might change, though. On Jan. 20, Lynn Haberstroh filed a complaint against Network Solutions in the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire. A second suit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles by Seven Words LLC, a recently incorporated California company, on March 18. Citing First Amendment rights, both plaintiffs want Network Solutions to end the moratorium on the dirty words.
But a resolution to the lawsuits is not straightforward. Although the company is a government contractor, it remains a privately held firm with its own First Amendment rights. No company can be forced to deal in products it finds objectionable.
All of which leaves the future of the Internet up in the air.
On the one hand, the Internet should be an unrestricted marketplace of ideas, no matter how much some individual or company agrees or disagrees with them. The Internet is one of the last bastions of free speech, a place where all people can make their opinions known. On the other hand, forcing speech requirements on a private company tramples the very rights free-speech advocates attempt to defend.
The best solution to this impasse is also the most difficult. Network Solution’s exclusive contract with the government expired recently and was temporarily renewed until a more competitive framework is created. Rather than formulating a plan that leaves domain names under corporate control, it is time for the Internet to return management to the government.
At its most basic, the Internet is a mass-communications medium. Just as the FCC oversees the airwaves, a federal body should oversee the Internet. Such a body would ensure that individual rights are maintained without the burden of corporate morality. Moreover, by having federal oversight, many of the other issues plaguing cyberspace today could be settled. Problems like domain-name warfare, the availability of pornography, hackers, software pirates and insecure commercial transactions could all be handled by the new organization and by federal legislation.
A return to federal control would return the power to the people through their elected officials. Web site creators deserve the right to call their creations whatever name they can get, no matter how asinine. Only public accountability can ensure this. If someone does not like the Web site fuck.com, avoid surfing there. I just want trejbal.com.
Chris Trejbal’s last official column will appear next Tuesday. He welcomes comments to [email protected]