The House of Representatives yesterday passed a bill to discourage "cybersquatting"--registering addresses on the Internet like "McDonald's.com" in hopes that the rightful trademark owner will pay top dollar to ransom it back.

The Trademark Cyberpiracy Protection Act, which passed on a voice vote, would set civil liability of up to $100,000 for people who in bad faith register "domain names" that are "identical or confusingly similar" to an existing trademark; it would also protect the companies that register Internet names from legal liability when they cancel a cybersquatter's registration.

One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), called it "a modest and useful change in the law that will empower trademark owners with the means of protecting their intellectual property in the online environment." A similar measure has passed the Senate.

A number of cyber-liberties groups oppose the bill; Stanton McCandlish of the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a "bonehead bill" that extends the trademark rights of business at the expense of small businesses and individuals who might have some claim to a trademark but who will be rolled over by big companies using the new law.

The Clinton administration has expressed concerns that the cybersquatting bill would lead to a global patchwork of domain-name standards. "We support efforts to crack down on cybersquatting," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert, "but we want to do so in a way that will work around the world."