Civil rights groups are rushing to secure Internet address names that contain some of the most racist words in the English language in order to keep them away from hate groups.
The NAACP has registered several address variations on anti-black slurs. Likewise, the Anti-Defamation League has purchased rights to numerous addresses that contain antisemitic epithets.
It is another reminder that the World Wide Web is a hotbed for seaminess as well as opportunity. This week, an unnamed seller on the online auction site eBay.com was trying to peddle the rights to a Web address that includes the "n-word." The seller, known by the screen name "animius," was asking a minimum bid of $1 million and suggested on the site that both "peace-supporting organizations or individuals" and "hate-supporting individuals or organizations" could find the address valuable.
NAACP spokesman John C. White said that the group did not bid in the eBay auction and that, given its resources, its ability to secure every offensive address name is limited. "You can only do so much," White said.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said eBay is to blame. "They're selling hate, bigotry and racial stereotypes," he said before the auction was pulled by eBay yesterday afternoon.
EBay officials acted promptly after being informed of the auction's existence by The Washington Post. "We had serious questions about the language being used," said Kevin Pursglove, spokesman for the San Jose-based company. EBay does permit use of racial epithets "in very narrow instances of descriptive language," he added. "But in this case, it could be interpreted that the seller was marketing to hate groups . . . and that is considered outside our community guidelines."
It costs $70 to register an Internet domain name through Network Solutions Inc., the Herndon-based registration company. Every word is fair game if it hasn't been claimed, except for six of the seven vulgarities deemed unmentionable by the Federal Communications Commission (the seventh vulgarity, a four-letter word beginning with "sh," was recently made permissible by NSI because it's a common sound in Japanese).
In recent months, commonly identifiable monikers have fetched huge sums as individuals, companies and special interests aggressively seize Web addresses that can be readily associated with their business or cause. The name "business.com," for instance, sold for $7.5 million last month.
But Web addresses can be used for either noble or hateful purposes. "Basically three kinds of people are in the market for these hideous acronyms," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. "Those who want to keep them away from the hate sites, those who want to sell them for hate purposes, and those who want to make a living selling them to whomever."
This week's eBay auction seems to fit into the third category, although as often happens in such cases, little could be gleaned about the perpetrator, "animius," who declared on the auction site that he was "not associated with any hate group or any other organization."
The domain name being auctioned, "niggers.org," was registered to a man in Miami, according to a online listing on Network Solutions. It included a phone number that has been disconnected and an address that is not listed with directory assistance in the Miami area. The NAACP would have kept this domain name out of circulation--and thus thwarted the auction--except that it owns only the singular form of the offending word, not the plural, which was apparently for sale.
Before the item was taken off the eBay site, there were 23 bids for the rights to the offensive slur, although it's possible that many of them came from the same person, perhaps the seller trying to drive up the cost of the address, a common practice on eBay.
The auction also contained a provision that the sale be completed through an escrow account on Greatdomains.com, a third-party clearinghouse for the sale of Internet domain names. "Rest assured, we will not be handling this transaction if it comes through this site," said Greatdomains chief executive Jeff Tinsley.
In the freewheeling realm of the Internet, such episodes are almost inevitable. "The potential here is as varied as all the circumstances that the Internet can help create," said Network Solutions spokesman Chris Clough.
"You're fooling yourself if you think you can inhibit hateful speech by just buying up names," said Jonathan Moskin, a New York intellectual-property lawyer and an expert on Internet copyright policy. "I happen to be Jewish, and I think there are far more valuable ways of putting the ADL's resources to work," he said.
The ADL's Foxman said his group is "still in the market" for offensive domain names, though he spoke with weary resignation.
"If you told me 10 years ago that this is what the ADL or the NAACP would be spending their time and money on," Foxman said, "I'd ask you, 'What are you smoking?' "