A Merchant of Death for the Digital Age

October 28th, 2014

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By CHHS Research Assistant Andrew Geltman

With the creation of new technologies people inevitably find new ways to make money off of them. One such person, Jon Schultz, is in the business of purchasing and reselling domain names. Schultz’ niche however, is purchasing domain names reflecting public health topics that have the potential to become major international crises.

Schultz engages in this business by researching emerging diseases. His research has led him to make several high profile acquisitions including H1N1.com, birdflu.com and ebola.com. Schultz gathers such domain names as a form of modern day prospecting. He hopes that the domains will someday increase in value because of a major event that draws more attention to their name. Schultz purchased ebola.com in 2008 for $13,500 and now wants to sell the domain for $150,000. Schultz claims that the bare bones site that currently exists receives 5,000 visits a day, justifying the price.

While his business is distasteful, it is perfectly legal. With the increased use of the Internet in the 1990s people began engaging in so called “cyber squatting.” Cyber squatting is the purchasing of domain names that are similar to already existing trade names. Individuals would purchase domain names that are similar to to existing large-scale retailors and other businesses to confuse consumers and divert web traffic from those websites. Cyber squatters would then often offer to sell the domain name at an exorbitant price to the trademark holder. Such activities were made unlawful under the Anti-Cybersquatting Piracy Act. The act prohibits the bad faith purchasing of domain names that are similar to domain names with existing trademarks.

In Schultz’s case, no one owns a trademark over infectious diseases or other threatening events, nor is he trying to divert web traffic from other websites. In fact, on ebola.com, he provides links to other websites about the crisis.

The domain name, ebola.com is so valuable because people hear about the Ebola crisis and type it in to their web browser. Since it is also cyber security awareness month it is important to note that eliminating the practice of typing (insert crisis).com will help protect your cyber security. It is generally not wise to enter generic “.com” websites. While Schultz’s website is not malicious, other similar sites could be. Best practices dictate that when looking for information on the Internet one should look to respected news outlets or government websites. Generally, the information is more reliable and the sites are usually more secure.

 

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