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From URLs to Apple Apps: A Brief History of Cybersquatting


Cybersquatters have a new target: App names on Apple's App store. Apple is trying to fight them off, but squatting has been a moneyspinning scourge since the dawn of the Interwebs.

Cybersquatting—the occupation of a Web address that someone else has a more legitimate claim on, for the purposes of reselling it later—is pretty sordid. Let's not mince word: If you're extorting money out of people whose business, livelihood or Web presence is better served by using a particular URL, you're being evil. A federal law called the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act was set up to protect the rights of individuals to their online presence and intellectual property, but it is frequently broken.

The practice started back in the early days of the Internet, when ICANN first allowed individuals to buy the rights to use a particular URL. People began buying the rights to URLs associated with a known brand, sometimes mocking-up a fake Web site there to prove they were "really" using it. Then when the company in question got wise, they'd often have to resort to legal action (if squatters were particularly unscrupulous) or simply fork over cash to secure the rights. Madonna and Apple, two of the most famous brands of modern times, had to engage in protracted legal battles over URLs.

But, as with all nefarious means of making money, the practice soon evolved. In 2009 there was a serious worry about an explosion in URL squatting as the Internet oversight body ICANN freed up a cluster of new URL termination codes—potentially enabling squatting on URLs that ended in .law or .nyc. Google itself has even been accused of profiting from the work of cybersquatters who buy URLs that are near to famous ones, but which often get mistyped—a practice known as typosquatting.

Then came the social media explosion. Facebook enabled vanity addresses at its site. It knew from experience that cybersquatters would strike at this new effort, on the world's most popular social network, so it had to put in place serious protections to prevent inappropriate use of the new URLs. They worked, for the most part, though there were a few tricky cases. Twitter, destined to become a cybersquatter haven thanks to the free choice it gives you to choose your Twitter ID, has suffered from a similar problem. Creating "verified accounts" stemmed the tide of fakes, but even Apple itself has fallen victim to Twitter squatting.

Now come the Apple App Store squatters. You might think the company's experience and its control-freak grip on Apps would preclude such a problem. But it seems that some people with a $99 Apple Developer Account—which is fairly easy to acquire, as you don't need to offer any proof you're going to deliver a useful Apple product—have been laying claim to cool-sounding app names. Their hope is that a big-name developer will ultimately decide to produce an app with the same name as their brand.

Now Apple has clamped down. The company is giving developers 90 days to submit a viable App under reserved names or face losing their claim to it. There are loopholes—particularly if a developer can quickly pull together a working app and submit in time to delay Apple's attention. That may be too high a price to pay for the squatters, but you can bet they'll be back. Wherever a hot new field of technology crops up, wherever names can be reserved, that's where you'll find them.

To keep up with this news follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.