Cybersquatters Feeling Safe in the UK

LONDON (07/10/2000) - The cybersquatter may be a dying breed in some parts of the world, but Charles Sweeney in Scotland isn't worried. He's convinced he is going to make big money on Internet domain names. In fact, Sweeney is so sure he'll be rich soon that he has invested 8,000 pounds (US$12,064) registering Internet addresses that he hopes to sell for a considerable profit.

Cybersquatting involves buying up domain names with the intent of selling them at a profit, often to the person whose name they have used. The domain names they register often include a generic term, such as "furniture," or the brand name of a company, like Coca-Cola Co.

If you'd like to buy, for example, childrensdvd.com from Sweeney, he'd probably charge you in the region of 10,000 pounds for it. Other names up for sale include ferrariagent.com and porscheagent.com, as well as babyleo.com and babyleo.co.uk.

Leo, as any Briton who doesn't live down a mine shaft could tell you, is the name of the infant born in May to Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife.

Sweeney has used the "babyleo" domain names to build a Web site that features a photograph of Baby Leo and his parents, as a way of publicizing his business.

I don't think I'm ready to sell babyleo.com yet, Sweeney says, but if someone were willing to pay the right price ... well, anything's negotiable.

Sweeney isn't bothered that some people mistake his site for an official Blair family Web site, or that others see it as some sort of a hoax. There is a "guest book" where visitors can offer feedback about what they think of the site, and visitors have been known to send messages to the Blairs, warning them of babyleo.com's existence.

In other parts of the world, the Net is closing in on cybersquatters. In the U.S., President Bill Clinton has signed an anticybersquatting act, and in Europe, Italy and Belgium are planning similar measures. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, meanwhile, is helping to settling private disputes over domain names.

In the U.K., however, cybersquatters are sitting pretty. No new legislation seems to be planned here in the near future, and WIPO has no authority over domain names ending with .co.uk. The word cybersquatter itself comes from the real-world practice of squatting, which in the U.K. refers to the act of taking over an uninhabited house and occupying it -- something that's legal here in some cases.

Cybersquatters in the U.K. are viewed, for the most part, almost as criminals, even though they aren't actually breaking any British laws. A BBC reporter working under cover recently tried to buy domain names from an assortment of shady characters. The cloak-and-dagger affair was revealed in a television program, complete with hidden cameras and suspicious domain name vendors who were eager to make a buck but not keen to say too much.

Charles Sweeney isn't worried about hidden cameras or hidden agendas. He is convinced he is running a sound business. He hasn't actually sold any domain names yet, he says, but he's sure he will. Sweeney's latest investment is georgespeight.com, coined after a coup leader in Fiji who is receiving a good deal of media attention. Well, Sweeney figures, someone may want to pay good money for the name. And he's proud to say that he has put up a few pictures and some text on georgespeight.com, because he likes to "give people something more on the site, not just advertisements for my businesses."

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