Monday, February 4, 2008

Uses and abuses

As domain names became attractive to marketers, rather than just the technical audience for which they were originally intended, they began to be used in manners that in many cases did not fit in their intended structure. As originally planned, the structure of domain names followed a strict hierarchy in which the top level domain indicated the type of organization (commercial, governmental, etc.), and addresses would be nested down to third, fourth, or further levels to express complex structures, where, for instance, branches, departments, and subsidiaries of a parent organization would have addresses which were subdomains of the parent domain. Also, hostnames were intended to correspond to actual physical machines on the network, generally with only one name per machine.

However, once the World Wide Web became popular, site operators frequently wished to have memorable addresses, regardless of whether they fit properly in the structure; thus, since the .com domain was the most popular and memorable, even noncommercial sites would often get addresses under it, and sites of all sorts wished to have second-level domain registrations even if they were parts of a larger entity where a logical subdomain would have made sense (e.g., abcnews.com instead of news.abc.com). A Web site found at http://www.example.org/ will often be advertised without the "http://", and in most cases can be reached by just entering "example.org" into a Web browser. In the case of a .com, the Web site can sometimes be reached by just entering "example" (depending on browser versions and configuration settings, which vary in how they interpret incomplete addresses).

The popularity of domain names also led to uses which were regarded as abusive by established companies with trademark rights; this was known as cybersquatting, in which somebody took a name that resembled a trademark in order to profit from traffic to that address. To combat this, various laws and policies were enacted to allow abusive registrations to be forcibly transferred, but these were sometimes themselves abused by overzealous companies committing reverse domain hijacking against domain users who had legitimate grounds to hold their names, such as their being generic words as well as trademarks in a particular context, or their use in the context of fan or protest sites with free speech rights of their own.

Laws that specifically address domain name conflicts include the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act in the United States and the Trademarks Act, 1999, in India. Alternatively, domain registrants are bound by contract under the UDRP to comply with mandatory arbitration proceedings should someone challenge their ownership of the domain name.

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