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What’s the Beef.com?

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Opinion Just when you thought it had all been done before and the last great tales of Net derring-do were a thing of the past, up pops another marvellous example of how the Web is continually changing itself and our world.

It probably hasn’t passed many readers by that the US reported its first case of BSE aka Mad Cow Disease recently. Only a few years ago, the discovery of BSE in the UK led to the almost total collapse of our cattle industry as hundreds of thousands of animals were killed and burnt to contain the disease.

Considering the size of the US beef industry and the fact that a large number of countries placed an immediate ban on the import of US cattle, the discovery of BSE is not an insignificant event.

But one person’s misfortune is another’s opportunity and PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - swiftly posted its version of events at the rather attractive Web domain of Beef.com. PETA points out a few nasty things about BSE and meat in general and suggests you may want to become a vegetarian in order to wipe out the risks entirely.

It was, in modern lingo, an extraordinarily successful PR campaign, garnering numerous column inches in American newspapers and magazines last week including the New York Times, Wired, USA Today and a wire service piece picked up across the US.

What’s even more interesting from a Net point of view though is that PETA doesn’t own Beef.com. It had in fact rented it from its owner, Michael Fischer, for a month. Mr Fischer tells us that he has some sympathy with PETA’s approach being a vegetarian himself but happily admits the main reason he sub-let the domain was to raise its profile and so increase his chances of selling it.

The domain Beef.com has been up for sale for a while. This time last year, Mr Fischer was asking $333,000 for it. Most recently he was asking $150,000. Now, with the added publicity, he’s asking $250,000. And demonstrating the kind of fingers-up-to-authority that the Internet gives the man in the street, he asked the National Cattlemen for $2.5 million when the organisation approached him desperate to prevent a mass cow boycott in the home of the beefburger.

It seems as though, despite all the corporate-friendly laws that have been drafted in to keep the Internet under control, the good old Web always has another trick up its sleeve.

However, this case and Mr Fischer’s innovative approach to domains may just welcome in a new era of domains. Now that domains are legally held to be property thanks to Gary Kremen’s tireless 10-year battle over Sex.com, it seems only natural that the market would develop in the same way as houses.

As anyone who follows the domain name market will tell you, the price of domains has recovered and is almost standing at pre-dotcom-bust figures. It makes sense then that some speculators may invest in an expensive domain and then lease it out to people in fixed-term contracts - just like the housing market. You need not sell the domain completely - you simply accept a long-term lease or even monthly rents, depending on the market and the domain.

The great advantage to this is that it pulls the God-like power over domains away from companies like VeriSign which have abused the market for long enough but are impossible to remove. The leasing or renting of a domain also adds strong evidence for a case of ownership that would make the questionable and often foul judgments made by organisations such as WIPO and NAF far less relevant. In effect, we would end up with a fair and equitable system despite the rotten foundations on which the domain name market has been built.

And, of course, the Web would retain its revolutionary spirit. Big companies can seek to bend people’s perceptions but they’ll have to do it by paying for advertising space rather than using their clout to silence others. Hands up who thinks that’s a good thing. ®

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