Why you should care

Because cybersquatting is just a Saturday night hobby for some people.

A mere decade or so ago, when people got sloshed with their friends, they might have descended into generic silliness; perhaps taking some dumb photos of one another or drawing rude shapes on that one guy who passed out. Today, though? Young people have figured out a new, possibly productive way to spend their sodden hours: They get drunk, get inspired and buy brilliant domain names.

Just ask 35-year-old Andrea Afra, the digital media director of an alt newspaper in Houston, who owns upwards of 15 domain names, including whydallassucks.com and deepfriedpixels.com. All drunkenly inspired. Some she’s bought out of a desire to create a blogging empire. Others? She just felt the rush of genius.

Then there’s Nathalie, a 23-year-old who works for a major tech company in New York (and asked that we not use her last name due to our exposé of her intoxicated habits). She owns 50 domain names, including just about every permutation of “conscious uncoupling,” the term Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow used to refer to their divorce. That’s right, she’s got: consciousuncoupling, unconsciouscoupling.com, unconsciousuncoupling — you get the gist. Her thinking? It was a hot, trending topic — someone was going to want it. She just got there first. So far, the only offer to buy one of the domains came from a “creepy” guy in Eastern Europe, but she’s also trying this with co-workers as a troll tactic, hoarding their possible online identities. She’s not about to do anything with them. “It’s just this weird, quirky thing I do sometimes,” she says.

But selling all those domain names could be a big business, and it’s already a real market. Sales hit $3.3 billion in 2013 and are now growing at 6 percent a year, double the rate from before 2013, according to market research firm IBISWorld. Much of that, of course, is dominated by the real sellers — GoDaddy, Bluehost, etc. But call the drunk market a small, savvy, sloppy cottage industry accompanying the big one. It keeps ramping up as more and more options for domain endings keep cropping up — New York just added .nyc, which naturally led Nathalie to try to buy party.nyc and tonight.nyc (what club wouldn’t want that?). And more and more people need sites for their personal or corporate online identities. Buy a domain name before some startup wants it? Congrats on your golden ticket. Investing.com, for instance, sold for nearly $2.5 million a few years ago.

We want to be able to say the name of a trademarked corporation sucks!

Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Of course, buying domains can also be a touchy and serious subject, especially when you’re pulling a troll act on someone bigger than your co-workers. Like, say, one Republican presidential candidate, Carly Fiorina, whose spat over the rights to carlyfiorina.org, a domain name she didn’t snap up and left to the wolves, resulting in an anti-Fiorina campaign with an ace-in-the-hole SEO game that has made national news. There are mind-boggling legal implications for a purchaser of such a domain, who might face potential lawsuits.

Indeed, some would call what Nathalie and others do “cybersquatting” — buying up URLs they have no intention of using, and which might violate trademark rules, in hopes of cashing in on them. And plenty of people who sit on domain names may want to do that precisely to defame character or violate trademarks, says Akram Atallah, the president of the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

On the flip side, ask Rebecca Jeschke of the tech civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation and you’ll find that what’s a funny game to some people means much more to some activists. It’s free speech, she reasons. “We want to be able to say the name of a trademarked corporation sucks!” she says. She cites the Yes Men, par example, two guys who pull performance-art-cum-protest acts. They’ve used domain buying as part of their act before, like when they bought genewscenter.com, designed it to look like the General Electric company media room, and declared the company would be donating billions in its tax refunds. To do what the Yes Men do requires parody, Jeschke says, and parody requires using someone else’s name to mock them.

Both sorts of buying, though, share something in common: They require a unique, 21st-century sense of what’s #trending, from Caitlin Jenner to the 2016 elections. That media pulse brought 24-year-old Nabilah (who works in media) her pièce de résistance, purchased after a tipsy date with a less than inspiring fella, during which they discussed the item of the moment, Kim Kardashian’s rear end superimposed on magazines across America. “It’s just glorified fat,” Nabilah remembers the guy saying. Hence her purchase: glorifiedfat.com. For this drunken habit, she drops up to $85 a pop — certainly more expensive than a munchies-induced burrito.

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