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Since the legits aren't buying back domain names, squatters are selling them for the next most profitable cause—pornography

illustraion by Jayachandran
On many silent nights, long after the clock has struck 12, a few people who somehow are never women, sit before their PCs awaiting what they call "zero hour". That's when the ghosts come. Dead domain names that have not been renewed by their former owners are released in thousands by domain-registering companies.

It's decent working hours for the American firms but this side of the world only the queer are awake. They have only a few seconds to lap up the falling names, especially if they are popular, like say business.com. Millions of squatters the world over know when such a domain is falling because it's their business to keep track. Around the time when the name is being dropped, they use various proprietary programs that keep sending scores of requests per second, like random arrows shot at a falling apple. One of them hits the target. The fruit belongs to the man whose arrow it is. It's a matter of luck and speed of connectivity. Koreans normally beat Indians at it because they have connections a few hundred times faster. They can send many hundred arrows per second. That's how they reportedly took domain names like bharat.com.

Most squatters have accounts with these registering firms. They then try to sell these domain names. Possibly to someone it rightly belongs to. The Shiv Sena has good reasons to own shivsena.com but they don't. A gigantic engineering student who owns it walks nervously near Shivaji Park in Mumbai grumbling that the party hasn't got in touch with him. He doesn't probably realise he's lucky they haven't. Mutters he: "I did it for a friend. We thought they'll contact us but they haven't."

It's a fate befalling many Indian squatters. They have picked up domain names thinking they'll fetch them millions. But Indian companies, organisations and celebrities have not been very keen on buying back these names. Squatters who three years ago said that investing in domain names was better than investing in stocks have reformed and possibly become early sleepers, because the story of those who have persisted with the trade is not very sweet.

The guy who owns shekharsuman.com has been trying to sell it to the TV star for some time now. He talks unsuspectingly over the phone with a friend who has, for some reason, gleefully betrayed him to us. And even offered to switch on the speakerphone. "I'll settle for Rs 50,000," he tells his friend, a climbdown from the initial Rs 1 lakh. "I'll give you 10 per cent if you get me to speak to him." What he doesn't know is that if he manages to contact the actor, the response he'll get is, according to Suman himself, "Go, get stuffed." The squatter toys with another option. He could divert all the traffic he gets on shekharsuman.com to a porn site that will pay him about two cents a hit. That's what has happened with tatas.com, mtnlonline.com, samajwadi-party. org, wiprosystems.com, bankofmadura.com and calfilmfestival.com. It may interest the custodians of Indian culture to know that vhp.com too opens to a link that says with utmost responsibility: "Adult content. Over 18 only".

Such arrangements with pornographic sites earn some of the squatters $500-$1,000 a month. Far less than the millions they hoped for less than two years ago. There is also an intent to blackmail. The idea is to unnerve and embarrass the interested party and make him quickly settle for a reasonable amount. But apparently the victims are not embarrassed enough. MTNL hasn't cared to even negotiate. Outlook got in touch with the owner of samajwadi-party.org posing as a serious buyer. He said he will give it back "for nothing less than $1,100", a figure that some squatters agree today is unrealistic. But there are times when squatters get lucky. Frazer and Haws paid Rs 30,000 to get back frazerandhaws.com from a squatter, according to its vice-president Indu Baig. A few days ago, Santosh Birajdar sold bhartimobile.com, bharticellular.com, bhartihealthcare.com and bhartifoundation.com for Rs 25,000 to Bharti Telecom, after sitting on it for over a year. "Reliance paid Rs 10,000 for relianceinfocom.com and rilinfocom.com," adds Birajdar who owns over 150 domains. But even he concedes: "Things are grim. The kind of money people thought was in squatting is simply not there." He also owns wiproind.com, wiproinc.com, wiprochina.com and even azimpremjifoundation.com. "Mr Premji's office sent me a mail saying that he wanted the domain back. I sent a mail saying that I didn't want anything in return. Just 10 minutes with him." To which Birajdar got a reply saying that Mr Premji was a very busy man.

Since the world is full of people who can never get the spelling right, there is something called typo squatting which is about registering names that are misspelt, like say prietyzinta.com. This is linked to some sites that pay its owner for the traffic. Two years ago, when Sushil Lath misspelt the name of a popular educational site and registered the name egurukool.com, the site egurucool.com, which had a heavy ad spend those days, got in touch with him. Since there were a lot of people who spelt Gurukool with a 'k' instead of a 'c', Lath was getting "over 2,000 hits a day". He says a bit sheepishly: "They offered a few lakhs but I thought it was worth much more." The deal fell through. He didn't get a paisa. Today he reroutes the traffic to his own website. Media professional Alex Samuel was very tickled when he found Union IT minister Pramod Mahajan didn't own his domain. He registered not only pramodmahajan.com but also arunjaitley.com and indiannationalcongress.com. VSNL got in touch with him and told him politely that it was in his best interest to drop the names as it's always a long walk to the courts. Alex gave up the name. "Mr Mahajan hasn't even paid me the registration charge that I had paid but that's all right I suppose."

At the height of the dotcom mania, Tushar Gandhi wanted to register indianopinion.com. "When I found that it was available, I asked one of my employees to book it." Indian Opinion was a paper his great-grandfather Mahatma Gandhi had edited in South Africa and so obviously the name was very dear to him. But the employee told him that the name was not available. It had been taken. When Tushar Gandhi searched for the owner of indianopinion.com, he found that the employee himself had booked it. Under his own name. "Such was the craze for domains those days." Gandhi also had trouble bagging mahatmagandhi.com. It was squatted upon by an Indian student in the US. Says Gandhi: "I was willing to give him a little more than he may have spent to register the domain. But if he had asked for even $500, I wouldn't have paid him." The student agreed to give it for $100 but eventually backed out.

But Gandhi has a good chance of getting the name back if he wants to. Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN) takes swift action against squatters through its Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP).

Companies and individuals do not have many reasons to yield to squatters. But there is a variety of mass-domain name owners who are making an impression. Naresh Malik of WatchMyDomain.com monitors over 60,000 Indian domains. He is among those who sit in front of the computer waiting for the zero hour. When the domains fall, he picks them up. And offers them back to the rightful owners for almost nothing more than "some tea and a lot of goodwill". He did that with Tataindia.com. Got goodwill if not tea. The Tatas paid him Rs 10,000 for a 10-year period and in a note of appreciation asked him to please warn them before their other domains fall in less samaritan hands.

Sanjeev Goyal, who owns indiragandhi.com "for a good cause only", gave rajtravels.com back to the firm. "But the proprietor was so worried I was going to ask for a lot of money," Goyal says, "he pretended to read my palm and said 'you're going on a foreign tour'. He was hinting that he'd give me free tickets." He remembers a day two years ago when an illiterate Maharashtrian grain merchant booked 100 domain names at one go, muttering to himself that he'd sell each for nothing less than Rs 25 lakh. But now that times and moods have changed drastically, Goyal is happy to be "on the right side". He is among the midnight domain hunters who hopes to earn goodwill in a world that, the shrinking comity of squatters has learned, has lost the fine art of bargaining.
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