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For the week of April 2 - 8, 2003

News

Bill to ban cybersquatting stalled in House committee


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

After receiving unanimous approval from the Idaho Senate on March 6, a bill that would prevent "political cybersquatting" appears trapped in the House State Affairs committee.

"It appears that thereís some political pressure to hold it," said the billís cosponsor, Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum.

But the source of the presumed pressure is unclear, and the politician who has authority to give the bill a hearing or to hold it indefinitely ignored the Mountain Expressí repeated attempts to obtain an explanation.

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Bill Deal, R-Nampa, did not return telephone calls last week inquiring about the billís status.

Stennett introduced the bill this winter in an apparent response to his discovery last fall that a prominent Idaho Republican Party appointee was "squatting" on a Web site bearing his name. The bill, called the Political Cyberfraud Abatement Act, breezed to easy approval in the Idaho Senate.

If made law, the bill would impose fines up to $1,000 for each day a violation occurs and would enable a court to transfer a domain name as part of any relief granted. Similar legislation was passed in California in 2002.

"(Web site campaigning is) a practice of free speech, and people ought not to be using that type of speech to interfere with campaigns," Stennett said.

In the midst of campaigning for re-election to his District 25 Senate seat last fall, Stennett discovered that Idaho Republican Party Vice Chairman Latham Williams had registered the Web site, clintstennett.com. A Sun Valley city councilman, Williams was recently appointed to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation board of directors.

Williams defended the action last fall as "political strategy" but declined to comment on it further. He was unavailable for comment this week.

Although Williams registered the Web site in May of last year for a period of two years, the site has not been used to post any information nor can it be retrieved by typing the address into an Internet browser address bar. A quick inquiry on dollardomainname.com, however, revealed that the site is still registered.

Nonetheless, Stennett said he had not introduced the bill because of Williamsí actions, but because his constituents suggested the idea.

The bill defines political cyberfraud as intentionally redirecting access to a political Web site, intentionally preventing or denying exit from a political Web site, registering a domain name that is similar to another for a political Web site "with the intent to cause confusion" or as intentionally preventing use of a domain name for a political Web site "by registering and holding the domain name or by reselling itÖ"

Stennett said the bill is based on model legislation from the National Conference of State Legislators, a forum for lawmakers to research and share ideas.

"The World Wide Web is a unique arena for the free and open exchange of ideas," states the bill. "Political cybersquatting stifles that open exchange, thus undermining the essential element of our democracy."

A 1999 federal law allows people or companies whose names or trademarks have been used in "bad faith" on the Internet to sue for damages.

However, political cybersquatting appears not to be illegal under the provisions of the federal statute. Last April, Marylandís lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lost when the World Intellectual Property Organizationís Arbitration and Mediation Center declined to transfer Internet addresses bearing her name to her.

"The panel finds that the protection of an individual politicianís name, no matter how famous, is outside the scope of the policy since it is not connected with commercial exploitation," according to the ruling.

But that hasnít stopped states from taking action.

California enacted a law Jan. 1 outlawing political cybersquatting. Violations in California include registering the domain name of a political opponent on the Internet to set up a phony Web site, or to resell it for financial gain.

Stennettís bill states:

"Political cybersquatting has the effect of denying a voter access, or interfering with a voterís access, to information that will enable the person to make a knowledgeable electoral decision.

"Political cybersquatting is the equivalent of stealing campaign literature out of a voterís mailbox, because it prevents a voter from accessing or being aware of particular electoral information."

 

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