Within minutes of the Virginia Tech massacre, online domain names related to the tragedy were snapped up by people hoping to sell them off for a profit or use them to link to advertisers.
The cost of registering such domains is generally less than $10, but some are now being auctioned off for thousands, a practice experts say has become commonplace.
“Any time there’s a big news event, people go register the domain names,” says Christine N. Jones, general counsel for GoDaddy.com, the world’s largest domain registration service. “Nine-eleven they did it, Katrina they did it, the tsunami in southeast Asia they did it.”
A few hours after the rampage, Fred McChesney, a 48-year-old Phoenix man began buying dozens of names, including CampusKillings.com, VirginiaTechMurders.com and SlaughterInVirginia.com.
McChesney says he saw it as an opportunity to show his contempt for firearms by featuring anti-gun content on the domains he is selling, but he also saw it as an opportunity to cash in.
“Everyone is profiting off of this,” McChesney says. “I’m not hurting anyone.”
But the profiteering has drawn harsh criticism by those affected by the killings.
“If anybody is working to make a profit off of this tragedy by selling these kinds of things, it’s just a crying shame,” says university spokesman Mark Owczarski. “Obviously, you wouldn’t want anybody to make a profit off something as horrendous as this.”
Jeremiah Johnston, chief operating officer for domain name broker Sedo.com, says his company has shut down domains named after the victims as well as dozens of others related to the tragedy, including BlacksburgBloodbath.com and SchoolSlaughter.com.
“We do feel that they fly in the face of our offensive domain policy,” Johnston says. “It is quite tasteless.”
GoDaddy.com shut down one site purporting to raise money for the victims’ families after university officials said they were not aware of any such charity, says Jones.
In general, there are few restrictions on what people can register. The Internet’s key oversight agency, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has arbitration procedures for resolving disputes, but they cover only trademarks and service marks., which can include names of celebrities.
Federal laws also focus on trademark owners, not the names of non-famous individuals, meaning that people have been free to purchase domains with victims’ names. That would require families or friends who wanted to memorialize a victim online to purchase the domain name from them.
“It’s kind of exploitative, but it’s not really cybersquatting,” says University of South Carolina cyberspace law professor Ann Bartow. She says that domains registered in the names of victims are “socially, normatively disgusting, but it’s not trademark bad faith.”
The practice of purchasing domain names for profit following tragedies persists in part because society has not reached the point of outrage, suggests psychologist Robert Butterworth of International Trauma Associates in Los Angeles.
“We haven’t gotten to the point yet where we say ‘Shame shame,’” says Butterworth, who specializes in the psychological effects of mass tragedies. “This is kind of ahead of the curve a little.”
McChesney, who has been “hugely anti-gun” since his brother shot him in the face with a BB gun when he was a child, says he hopes to use some of his domains to draw attention to what he calls an epidemic of gun violence in America.
He also plans to give away his memorial domain names to Virginia Tech students, and has donated one so far. He hopes to sell other domains, such as VaTechTheMovie.com, to companies. So far, he has not sold any.
He does, however, understand that many will vilify him. But he says he does not think he’s doing anything wrong.
“What I’m doing is the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” he says. “Period.”
— Associated Press
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