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<nettime> Dot-Complaints

Companies learn the hard way that critics are taking their name in vain

Carolyn Said, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2000
San Francisco Chronicle


NATL -- In the great equalizing democracy of the World Wide Web, the word
``sucks'' has become the clarion call for First Amendment rights. 

The Web has proved to be a fertile ground for corporate critics. Gadflies
have increasingly set up Web sites to mock and moan about such monoliths
as Wal-Mart, McDonald's and United Airlines. Many of these Davids have
adopted the Web address ``Goliath (or whoever),'' to the dismay
of corporations that want to control every evidence of their identities. 
Corporations have been lobbying that they should own all rights to their
own names in cyberspace. But now sentiment is growing for enacting
stronger protections for corporate-criticism sites, including the right to
use a corporation's name in their address. In fact, Ralph Nader's Consumer
Project on Technology, has proposed that ``.sucks'' be added as a new Web
site suffix, right up there with ``.com.''

``We picked `sucks' because it's in your face,'' said Jamie Love, director
of the CPT. ``It was designed to say in a provocative way that even this
should be permitted. If you have a Web site called, it's
pretty clear what it's about.''


Recently, corporations -- although not renowned for their raunchy senses
of humor -- have started to mute their opposition to hearing that they,
well, suck. In part, they fear they'll appear to be trampling the First
Amendment;  in part they can't win in court.  When a small hacker e-zine
called 2600 registered the Web address this spring,
Verizon Communications -- the biggest local phone company in the United
States -- at first threatened legal action.  But then Verizon had a change
of heart. 

``After we reviewed the content (of the Web site), we decided we won't
pursue the matter because this is a freedom-of-speech issue,'' said Larry
Plumb, a spokesman for Verizon, which was formed by the merger of GTE and
Bell Atlantic.  Initially, Verizon was concerned about cybersquatters --
people who register trademarks as Web addresses in hopes of selling them
for a profit. 

But because the online magazine was going to use the address to point out
Verizon's faults, not to resell it to Verizon, the phone company backed
down. Plumb wouldn't go so far as to say that Verizon embraces criticism,
but he said it wants to correct ``the misimpression that we're trying to
squelch criticism.''

The Verizon case illustrates a turning point in sentiment about derogatory
terms in Web addresses.  When ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names and Numbers), the Internet's governing body, met this month in
Yokohama, Japan, a committee passed a resolution that using trademark
names in conjunction with terms such as ``sucks'' should be allowed. The
resolution specifically cited ``'' as an example of
the type of name that should be protected. 

``The purpose of a trademark is not to give the owner (of) the trademark
complete control over the use of the trademark, but to avoid confusion
over the identity of persons, groups, firms or organizations,'' the
resolution stated.  That's a far cry from some attitudes in the past. 

Confronted with Web sites that feature gossip and gripes about them,
companies have generally reached for their legal guns, even when they
didn't use ``sucks'' in their name. 

Ford Motor Co. sued a Web site that not only criticized the automaker but
posted information on its coming products. Last year, a judge ruled in
favor of the site's gadfly publisher, saying his First Amendment rights
took precedence over his violations of Ford copyrights. 

Dunkin' Donuts threatened to go after a criticism site run by a
disgruntled customer. When he refused to back down, the doughnut chain
bought out his site, saying it would use the address,, to communicate with customers. But instead of the
gripes previously posted to that address, it is a now a cheery paean to
the glories of fried dough, with a form to e- mail the company. 


Using the Web exclusively for upbeat pablum about your firm is a mistake,
say the authors of ``The Cluetrain Manifesto.'' The 1999 book argues that
the Web presents companies with a golden opportunity to interact with
customers -- the dissatisfied as well as the fans. 

``Maybe the best thing Verizon could do -- other than getting a better
name that actually sounds like a phone company -- would be to have a site
where people can flame. Let them scream. Then do something about (their
complaints),'' said Rick Levine, one of four ``Cluetrain'' co- authors and
CEO of a Colorado startup called Mancala. 

Consumers are too sophisticated to swallow sugarcoated claims, he said. 
``The premise that if you prevent anyone from saying nasty things about
you, they'll buy your crap doesn't hold water.''

Some companies have tried a stealth way to ward off online criticism. They
buy the rights to Web addresses that demean their firm. Volvo has sewed up Chase Manhattan owns,, and and are held by, you guessed it, Charles
Schwab & Co.  Verizon also tried that approach, registering its name in
combination with ``sucks,'' ``bites'' and ``blows.'' But because there is
an infinite universe of name combinations out there, 2600 simply stuck in
the extra word ``really'' to get its address.  And many
corporate-criticism sites refrain from provocative names.
and have needled McDonald's and United Airlines, respectively,
without using those company names or insolent terms in their addresses. 


If ``.sucks'' -- or the more likely ``.watch'' or ``.complaint'' -- does
become a Web suffix, there would need to be safeguards to prevent
companies from getting those addresses themselves.  ``It's a troubling
development when companies move to make a pre-emptive strike'' by sewing
up critical domain names, said Christopher Chiu, global Internet liberty
campaign organizer with the ACLU in New York. ``Domain names are a form of
speech and they should be protected as such.''

People's inherent desires for fairness and balance ultimately may help
companies, even when negative sites spring up, Levine said. ``In any
environment where you're collecting people, some will harp and criticize,
and some will counter it.'' Indeed the site goes the
extra step to link to a site,, that attempts to
counter it. 

``I created this site after being absolutely disgusted in reading
childish, lazy, disgruntled associates' letters on (,''
wrote the site's author, who said he or she is a Wal-Mart employee.  In
the end, sometimes you have to really love something to say it sucks. The
site appears to be populated by people who live and
breathe the travails of the island castaways. It obsessively details every
aspect of the hit CBS show -- including who wins. 

CBS hasn't tried to sue; in fact it's happy its rabid fans are getting
together.  E-mail Carolyn Said at 

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