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Cybersquatting, Emerging Markets and the future of the Net

The other day I was on the phone with a friend who does international business based in Europe. He was telling me about the recent .eu debacle – how basically before it was even launched the .eu top level domain had been corrupted (his words) by squatters who had taken over all kinds of names. Names you or I might know. Other companies’ names.

Now that’s Europe, but I work with Emerging Markets, especially Africa and Latin America. So I had to ask myself… is this something that really matters in the countries and markets that I care about most? Are domain name “land grabs” really something that Zambia should care about? And could this actually happen in Kenya, or Colombia, or Bangladesh?

The answer to both questions is yes. This kind of thing can – and will likely – occur some day soon in Emerging Markets. And what’s more, I believe it could have a really negative affect on the potential for the growth of the Internet (and Internet business) in places like Kenya where the ‘net is growing fastest.

I start with the assumption that Internet real estate abuse is a problem anywhere. Squatters don’t exactly contribute much to what we all think of as the real function of the ‘net – getting people connected with information. Customers get confused. Reputations can be put at risk. Most importantly, all kinds of companies could be forced to spend all kinds of money and time to defend their own names. So far as I can see it, squatting is generally a bad thing for everyone but the squatter.

Now take this situation and expand it ten times. Imagine customer confusion in a market where access is more limited, where connection times are slower, and penetration of e-commerce is weaker… Imagine needing – as a growing regional company with lots of international competition – to defend yourself against squatters simultaneously in 10 different regional markets, through 10 different legal systems, where squatters have the ability to harm your brand or spread mis-information about your project… Imagine seeing the value of your ccTLD like .ke or the new .africa that has been discussed suddenly evaporate, as people come to the conclusion that it will be just too big a hassle to protect … Imagine how this might affect the development of IDNs …

The Internet stands ready to explode into Emerging Markets, providing real opportunities for business and development around the world. The system for allocating new TLDs should make this easier, not harder. As the recent .eu situation shows, the system for allocating names is broken. Everyone interested in the ‘net’s expansion as an engine of growth and development – government, business, users and techies – need to stand up and push to get it fixed.

Europe may have the resources to deal with .eu, but why should the rest of the world pay for this kind of nonsense?

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