The Internet's key site identity system is in mounting danger from new techniques that could cause havoc by turning it into a free-for-all market, the World Intellectual Property Organization WIPO warned on Monday.
And the United Nations' agency said the latest trends in registering top-level domain names (TLDs) -- like www.reuters.com -- could undermine dispute procedures under which patent holders can pursue "cybersquatters."
"Domain names used to be primarily specific identifiers of businesses and other Internet users, but many names nowadays are mere commodities for speculative gain," senior WIPO official Francis Gurry told a news conference.
Gurry, who runs the agency's own site-name dispute system, said the growth of computer-driven practices, like automatic mass harvesting of expired TLDs and "domain-name tasting," risks turning the system "into a mostly speculative market."
It could also leave trademark owners, even rich and powerful companies, facing virtually unmanageable challenges to their name patents, and make it increasingly difficult for ordinary Internet users to locate genuine sites.
In the early years of the Internet, the main challenge to the TLD system -- which includes the generic .com, .net and .int addresses as well as country codes like .fr (France) and .jp (Japan) -- came mainly from individuals, so-called "cybersquatters."
These would register a site using a slight variation of the name of a well-known firm or celebrity with an already existing Internet address in the usually well-founded hope of being able to sell it at a high price.
Since 1999, WIPO has operated a system under which cybersquatters can be challenged and have the sites they registered closed down or more usually transferred to the genuine owner of the name, if an arbitrator so rules.
Over the past eight years, the WIPO system has handled nearly 10,200 cases, in which complainants won 85 percent. But still the number of complaints has kept growing, reaching 1,823 last year, the most since 2000.
Gurry said the new techniques used by cybersquatters -- who include many adapting common drug names to sell doubtful or fake medicines over the Internet -- meant the volume of potential new cases was growing exponentially.
Among these techniques was the use of computer software to automatically detect expired site names, re-register them with one of the thousands of official registrars around the world and park them on portals bringing advertising revenue.
Another was the introduction by registrars, whose numbers are also growing rapidly, of a system of free-of-charge five-day "tasting periods" during which sites can bring in advertising revenue and then be closed, only to be re-registered elsewhere.
Domain names, said Gurry, are becoming "moving targets for rights holders."
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