Out-Law News 2 min. read

Mousetrapping typosquatter faces criminal trial

John Zuccarini, a journeyman of cybersquatting disputes, this week became the first person charged under America's new Truth in Domain Names law. If convicted, on charges of using misleading web addresses to lure children to porn sites, he faces up to four years in jail.

Zuccarini is no stranger to domain name disputes, having lost actions to actor Kevin Spacey and companies including FAO Schwarz, Alta Vista and others. In October 2001, the Federal Trade Commission took court action over his usual practice of registering internet domain names that were misspellings of legitimate domain names or brands – known as typosquatting. For example, he registered 41 variations on the name of pop star Britney Spears. Surfers who looked for a site but misspelled its web address were taken to his sites.

The most likely candidates to misspell addresses are, inevitably, children. Zuccarini had at one stage over 5,500 domain names registered, including, to use examples from the latest complaint, teltubbies and bobthebiulder.

Once in a Zuccarini site, users were bombarded with a flurry of pop-up windows displaying ads for goods and services ranging from internet gambling to porn. In some cases, the legitimate web site the consumer was attempting to access also was launched, so consumers thought the hailstorm of ads to which they were being exposed was from a legitimate web site.

And a Zuccarini site is very difficult to leave. In a practice known as mousetrapping, programming code at the sites obstructed surfers' ability to close their browser or to go back to the previous page. Clicks on the 'close' or 'back' buttons caused new windows to open, and more ads to appear – in the hope that the user will click on one and transfer to the advertised site.

Zuccarini, according to the complaint, was paid a referral fee of between 10 to 25 cents whenever a user moved on from his site to one of the sites advertised. The scheme earned him up to $1 million a year, and a huge number of complaints and civil court actions.

These culminated in May last year when a US District Court permanently barred Zuccarini from diverting or obstructing consumers on the internet and from launching web sites or web pages that belong to unrelated third parties. The court also barred him from participating in advertising affiliate programmes on the internet, and ordered him to pay almost $1.9 million in damages.

But Zuccarini has not complied with the order, according to the new complaint. He now faces a criminal prosecution, under legislation passed in April this year.

The Truth in Domain Names statute makes it a crime to use "a misleading domain name on the internet to deceive a minor into viewing material that is harmful to minors on the internet." If convicted, Zuccarini could face a jail term of up to four years.

"Children make mistakes," said US Attorney James Comey. He told the New York Times, "The idea that someone would take advantage of that, of a young girl, for example, trying to go to the American Girl Web site to look at dolls or a child trying to visit the Teletubbies web site, and mistypes, to take advantage of those mistakes to direct those children to pornography sites is beyond offensive."

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