World's most notorious cybersquatter arrested

John Zuccarini finally brought down by Feds

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The world's most notorious cybersquatter, John Zuccarini, has been arrested in Florida and will be prosecuted under new legislation aimed at protecting children online.

Zuccarini, who has made millions every year since the early days of the Internet by registering lucrative domains, was arrested by Feds just after dawn in his motel room.

The authorities believe he may have living there for months but the arrest is a coup for the agents who have been looking for Zuccarini since April. It will also put a smile on the face of the government and FTC who have both been trying to shut him down for several years.

The other great advantage for the US government is that the first usage of a controversial new act passed earlier this year will concern someone who has flagrantly disregarded the law for years.

John Zuccarini is without a doubt the biggest cybersquatter on the Internet. He was one of the very first people to register companies' and famous people's name and then use it to either extort money out of people or profit by pointing them at other sites that pay him a small fee for every referral.

But as time has gone on and new laws have been introduced, Zuccarini has been forced to adapt. It was no longer possible to buy a domain with the sole purpose of selling it to a company with the same name at a healthy profit. So he kept the domains himself and either redirected them for a fee or took money for pop-up ads. Often both.

When it became increasingly difficult to register domains of actual companies or people, he immediately leapt into so-called "typo-squatting" - where a domain is chosen that is almost identical to a well-known site but with letters transposed or missing. Again, heading to that site saw a multitude of ads pop up. Due to increasing social unacceptance of the practice, the ads tended to be for gambling or porn sites.

Once the US government introduced another set of laws aimed at stopping and fining people like Zuccarini (in fact, it could be argued that the laws were written specifically for Zuccarini), the gambling industry dropped out, leaving just the adult industry to fund Zuccarini's investment in thousands of domains.

And he's done well. Making between 10 and 25 cents per ad or referral, Zuccarini has been making around $1 million a year from his domains. And the huge sums of money have meant that he continues to do it despite numerous lost cases and fines.

He has been through the ICANN domain arbitration system 97 times involving several hundred domain names. He has lost virtually every one. He has been sued 63 times and has lost 53 and counting.

Fellow cybersquatter, Jeff Burgar, is noted for his courage in fighting the system, arguing his case admirably and exposing the shady goings-on behind the scenes that give companies and famous people ownership of domains without real justification.

John Zuccarini has however been the archetypal cybersquatter - utterly without justification other than to make as much money as possible by deceiving people. He never bothers to defend his domains but simply moves on to the next site.

The Feds have been pulling their hair out trying to stop him. It has a dedicated webpage to the man and took the unusual step of releasing a press release expressly stating it was going after him.

In October 2000, a government-brought case fined him $500,000 plus $30,000 in lawyers' fees. In June 2001, it did the same again. He was fined $50,000 plus $40,000 in lawyers' fees. But still he continued. In May 2002, it really went for him. He was fined an incredible $1.9 million and a court order was placed against him that banned him from redirecting people on the Internet or opening up new Web windows without getting their permission. He was also ordered to open his books to the FTC.

As no doubt one Fed said to another recently: "I don't think he's got the message." And so when a new bill called the PROTECT Act, known commonly as the "Amber Alert" Act, went through with a little-noticed addition called "Truth in Domain Names", time was finally up for John Zuccarini.

The Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act was passed by the House of Representatives in April this year by 400 to 25 and then approved in the Senate by 98 to 0. The president signed it.

The "truth in domain names" provision makes it illegal to use a "misleading domain name" in order to deceive someone into viewing obscenity or a child into viewing "material that is harmful to minors". The terms are tough - up to two years in jail for an adult and up to four years if the domain is intended to attract kids. The person can also be fined up to $250,000.

The problem is that the Act is on some very shaky territory. What is a "misleading" domain? Who decides what is "obscene"? What constitutes "harmful to minors"? The vast majority of pop-up ads and front pages of porn sites are relatively clean. To see something obscene, you need to click through to a different page - but can someone really be held responsible for another's actions?

What about many of the sites that Zuccarini has linked to that have a prominent warning saying "If you are under 18, do not enter"? Of course kids do enter, but can you hold someone else responsible for that? If you can, it sets a very nasty precedent - suddenly someone else can be held responsible for you do. That way, madness lies. And of course there is the eternal First Amendment defence in the US.

Another part of the Act is also shaky - it extends to definition of child porn to including images that are "indistinguishable from" kids in sexual positions, even if no kids are involved. Everyone agrees that child porn is repulsive but there is a strong whiff of thought police here that is almost certain to be questioned in court.

In fact, the US Supreme Court overturned an almost identical clause in the Child Pornography and Prevention Act of 1996, which tried to expand child pornography to include images that "appear to be" kids.

The Supreme Court decided that it was unlawful as it "prohibits speech despite its serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value". For example, Romeo and Juliet, Lolita and recent hit American Beauty would all be banned.

But with Zuccarini the lawmakers have the perfect test case that will at least give the new PROTEST Act one prosecution. He will be completely without remorse and yes it is hard to justify setting up domain names almost identical to Disneyland or Britney Spears with the full knowledge that they will link to porn sites.

Zuccarini is no friend to the authorities, no friend to kids, and no friend to those who are fighting against corporate and governmental interests to keep the Internet as democratic as possible. ®

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