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RealTime IT News

Court Ruling Could Prohibit Stealth Sites

It may be one of the cheapest ways to buy a little traffic to a Web site, but now it's also on very shaky legal ground. The practice of registering "stealth sites," or Internet addresses that are variations on popular corporate names, was blasted by a Virginia federal court this week.

A judge has ordered Network Solutions Inc. to freeze a Web site with the address www.wwwpainewebber.com. The district court ruled that owner of the site, a Miami, Florida man who was using the address to feed traffic to a pornography site, was diluting the famous investment firm's trademark.

Internet law experts say the ruling will likely set a precedent for the many cases of domain registrations based on misspellings of famous names.

Thursday, for example, Microsoft and two partners filed suits against three Los Angeles residents for registering sites with addresses including "misrosoft.com" and "mnsbc.com."

"The federal courts in Virginia have gotten a reputation as being quite sophisticated on domain name issues, and this ruling is going to be very persuasive," said Bret Fausett of Fausett, Gaeta & Lund in Boston.

The Virginia court's ruling is not expected have an impact the first-amendment rights of individuals to register sites such as netscapesucks.com, according to Michael Froomkin of the University of Miami law school.

"These people were doing this for profit in an attempt to profit for somebody else's famous mark, and they were doing it with pornography, which makes them the most disfavored class of all," Froomkin said.

Some observers have said the ruling could also force Network Solutions to be preemptive, and create a system to prevent people from registering such stealthsites.

But NSI spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy said the court's decision ruling will not cause the firm to change its practices.

"We believe these are just strings of letters and numbers, and it's not our job to decide who has a trademark dispute. Going through every registration one by one could slow down the entire registration process of the Internet," said O'Shaughnessy.

Separately Friday, NSI confirmed reports that it plans to unveil on Monday a new service called the Dot Com Directory.

Available for free at the Network Solutions web site in June, the database will merge NSI's list of 4 million Web addresses with a business database gathered by a company called infoUSA.

In addition to URLs, the directory will contain information such as business addresses, number of employees, sales, and phone numbers. According to the company, opting out of the database won't be possible at the launch of the Dot Com Directory, although NSI intends to allow companies to remove themselves in the future.