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May 15 2001. Domain Name Deja Vu – Why the ‘Keywords’ monopoly is flawed

It is Friday afternoon 4:45pm, you want to buy a book for the weekend. You walk into the bookstore on your way home. This is your favourite bookstore that has in excess of 2 million books on display. The attendant greets you and says:

ATTENDANT: "Can I help you, Sir!"

YOU: "Sure, I would like to buy a Science Fiction book please"

ATTENDANT: Let me take you to our "Science Fiction" department, Sir!

YOU: Thank you.

You walk through the History department amongst thousands of history books onto Medicine department with even more dazzling range of books displayed in an endless sea of shelves, and finally reach the "Science Fiction" department.

The attendant picks the "only" book called "Space Odyssey 4020, published by The Greed Press" from "Science Fiction" department and hands it over to you.

ATTENDANT: Here you go, Sir. The only book in the "Science Fiction" department!

YOU: Hmmmm, I am a bit confused! Do you mean it's your recommended book?

ATTENDANT: No Sir, it's our only book.

YOU: You only have one book in your "Science Fiction" department. But it's a department!

ATTENDANT: Well, you see Sir, our bookstore sold the Science Fiction department to "The Greed Press" and we are not allowed to display any other Science Fiction book!

You swiftly head for the door and leave the bookstore immediately, feeling cheated that you were offered "no choice" and promise yourself not to return to that bookstore again!

Sound silly? This would never happen would it? Maybe not in the physical world, yet the Internet is currently experiencing a growth in something similar. The flawed Internet keyword monopoly is now available!

Originally we would navigate the Internet using IP addresses, this was then superseded by Domain Names and now the shift is towards "common sense, non-technical 'Keywords'". Companies such as Realnames and CommonName offer registrar services for effectively monopolizing 'keywords' – category descriptions and classifications. Users enter such generic keywords into their browsers and, providing the words entered have been purchased by someone, will then direct the user to the particular associated website. As a result such generic descriptions may be used by companies to help customers navigate to their commercial websites. 

For example, the Bank of America have registered the keyword "Prime Broker" with Realnames. Trademarks and Company names are intended to be Unique Identifiers within industry sectors and countries respectively. By allowing other generic "descriptive words" such as "Prime Broker" rather than unique identifiers such as "Coca Cola" we are allowing people to monopolize the general description that is used to express a businesses.

Could Bank of America obtain a trademark for its keyword "Prime Broker"? No it could not. So why should they be allowed to obtain a monopoly on that keyword on the Internet?

The flaws of such a system can only serve to drive away the consumers if the choice is limited to a single first-come supplier. If we revisit the previous bookshop example, operating such a system in the physical world would result in only one book per 'registered category'. As a result, this limited system works only for the minority and any benefit it may appear to provide in the short term will remain solely in the short term! With such limited usability for the customer the monopolization of such keywords will inevitably result in user dissatisfaction.

We have previously tried to base a commercial infrastructure on such a flawed system, and consequently now endure the ongoing problem of cyber squatters. However, since the advent of the use of domain names for business, the Internet has grown from the informational resource it once was and into a valuable and essential part of the Global economy! Companies, and the people they employ, use the Internet to conduct business and promote their services. The Internet is now far too valuable to justify the implementation and use of flawed systems and business methods.

Companies owning the right to generic words describing what they are or what they do, do not just own the monopoly on the word but also the monopoly on the category or classification itself! In the Realnames promotional material, the Bank of America has purchased the keyword 'Prime Broker' from Realnames (in order to promote their Prime Brokerage Service Online). Prime Broker is not their name or even the name of their product or service; it is the business classification of what they do (undoubtedly along with many other brokerage services). Yet according to Realnames, and anyone who searches the Internet using Realnames, they are the sole 'Prime Broker'. Consequently, a customer conducting a search using Realnames will return unfair results – unfair to any measure of healthy competition, and ultimately against the customer's best interests. In this respect it is no different to the somewhat comical example given at the start of this article: "The Greed Press" now owns the Science Fiction department!

To illustrate the points of this article, I have registered the keyword 'High Street Banks'. I am not a bank, a fact known by search engines but not, it appears, a fact known by Realnames. A user naively entering 'High Street Banks' into the Realnames enabled Internet Explorer Address Bar will be navigated to my website. When this happens, and it will, the system has failed because when the user enters "High Street Banks" into their browser they will not be looking for my website but instead actual High Street Banks.

We have assiduously developed intellectual property law to allow people to obtain and register names, such as Trademarks etc. Yet we are now reverting to a system that allows anyone to displace the reasoning behind the establishment of an intellectual property framework! We must learn from the domain name dispute sagas and cyber squatting encountered in recent years. It can be argued that such a system is inherently more severe than existing cyber squatting problems, as now the ability exists to 'squat' on an entire category or classification as well as company names, products, and service offerings. We currently see single companies being the victim of cyber squatting, yet a keyword monopoly will only serve to encourage 'one-to-many' cyber squatting. Potentially, the members of entire business classifications and categories can become the victims of keyword cyber squatting!

The only viable naming system that can be implemented must utilise existing legal procedures for the obtaining of names, etc, – there should be no difference between the virtual and physical world! Consequently, the only naming system that can truly benefit the Internet is the exact same system and model that has long been established in the physical world. Such a naming system must adhere to and enforce the current company laws, regulations and trademark registration – we have long established the laws that govern its use and provide the necessary recourse if a dispute arises. It is a system that we know can provide the framework the Internet so desperately requires.

Ultimately, the only beneficiary for such keyword systems will be the first come, first served registrant monopolizing a specific category name or classification. All remaining businesses within such a category, classification or service offering will inevitably be alienated from promoting their businesses successfully using this medium, resulting in a minimum (if any) end users utilising this flawed system!

Melih Abdulhayoglu
Chief Security Architect – Comodo Group

About Comodo

The Comodo companies provide the infrastructure that is essential in enabling e-merchants, other Internet-connected companies, software companies, and individual consumers to interact and conduct business via the Internet safely and securely. The Comodo companies offer PKI SSLCode SigningContent Verification and Email Certificate; award winning PC Security software;  Vulnerability Scanning services for PCI Compliance; secure e-mail and fax services.   

Continual innovation, a core competence in PKI, and a commitment to reversing the growth of Internet-crime distinguish the Comodo companies as vital players in the Internet's ongoing development. Comodo secures and authenticates online transactions and communications for over 200,000 business customers and 3,000,000 users of our desktop security products. 

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