By Michael E. Miller
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By the year 2001, it is expected there will be 100 million domain names registered, although some of them no doubt will be challenged in court. Currently new names are being registered at about one every ten seconds. If the goal of a Website is to have people visit it, a good name takes on added importance. With the commercial potential of the Internet expanding daily, a well-placed name can be extremely valuable.
Smith realized that Internet domain names are considered real estate property. Just like real estate, she knew it was all about location. "I decided to concentrate on certain names that are considered premium," she explains. She concluded the area that would be safest from regulation in the future would be geographic names. "How could you trademark or copyright the name of a city? You can't," she says. And there would always be a demand for it, she thought. To make the most impact, she would focus on one region. The biggest return would come from the largest area, a megalopolis being at the top of the list, she says. Unfortunately all of the variations of the domain name for Miami-Dade were taken, not by a slow-witted county bureaucracy that had pushed for the name change in a 1997 special referendum, but by private individuals.
Smith refused to walk away from her dream. For months she would check Internic to see if the names had opened up. Slowly, improbably, one by one, they did. "I thought it would be a miracle to get one, and ended up getting all of them," she exclaims. Smith soon collected scores of names, the exact number of which she refuses to reveal. She says she's not particularly interested in selling most of them. Rather she plans to license, lease, and build on her sites.
Smith calls herself an Internet domain broker. Some claim she is a "cybersquatter" because she hoards domain names. It's an appellation she disputes. In recent legislation Congress defined cybersquatting as trafficking in a domain name identical or confusingly similar to a trademarked name, she notes. (The October 1999 bill assesses damages against those who in bad faith register a domain name that is too similar to an existing trademark.) All of her names are either generic or locations, and are not tied to a specific company or person. She chose the names after a careful study of the most popular Internet Websites. Similar research led her to conclude it was the perfect moment in which to make a run on premium names for South America.
But her monopolization of domain names, particularly locations, raises a variety of issues. Is it fair for one person to have so many names? There is always the possibility that government could decide the names belong to the public. Smith believes this is unlikely though, because dot.coms were created specifically for commercial use. Ultimately it is likely the courts will determine this issue.
In the fast-paced and changing world of cyberspace, it's a crapshoot whether Smith's names will be worth anything at all. Any number of unknown events are possible. New domains like dot.biz and dot.inc could dilute the value of the dot.coms. But if recent sale prices for premium domain names such as autos.com ($2.2 million), WallStreet.com ($1.03 million), and Business.com ($7.5 million) are any indication, Smith might very well garner substantial profits.
Even if Smith's holdings don't make millions in the future, her domain monopoly of the county's name is a powerful tool. A fact the county itself has been slow to grasp.
Jane Gentile loves to tell the tale of how she met Eve Smith.
One Sunday in early August 1999, Gentile, a real estate agent and community activist, decided to write a letter to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, urging him to focus on neighborhood beautification as a way to boost the local economy. Gentile included her name, phone number, and address on the missive. Following a link through a Miami Herald Website, she e-mailed it to the county executive. The letter came back marked undeliverable. So she changed the address and forwarded it to mayor@Miami-Dade.com.
"About an hour later, I get a call from a sweet little voice saying, 'I think you got the wrong site,'" Gentile says, laughing. It was Smith. The two talked on the phone for three hours, developing a friendship in the process.
Gentile, a militant proponent of incorporation for her North Miami-Dade community Country Club Lakes, ends her story in the following way: "[Smith] responded to a letter to her Website within one hour. Four months later I am still waiting for a response from the mayor." (Gentile prefaces the tale by proposing Smith should be mayor of Miami-Dade County. But the self-declared Webhead emphatically insists she will never run for public office.)
Gentile's letter was not the only e-mail destined for the county that Smith had received. The day after Smith added e-mail to the Internet links on the Miami-Dade.com Website in May of 1999, she found herself the recipient of two dozen e-mails for county employees. (The actual Internet address for county employees is firstname.lastname@example.org "I thought it was pretty wild," she comments. She wrote short notes in reply, explaining that they had the wrong address. In return she got messages disputing her. "People were really baffled, and they started arguing with me," she remembers.