FTC gets earful from NASA, forces nasa.com off the Web

Soon thereafter, Internet domain registrar Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon, Va.,
pulled the plug on the nasa.com domain. The real NASA site is at nasa.gov.


NASA, citing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, threatened legal action
last October against Host Networks of Hewlett, N.Y., the owner of nasa.com and other
government-style domain names.


The Space Act prohibits use of NASA's name in a way that implies a connection with the
space agency.


Host Networks quickly responded with a "Not A Space Agency" page, protesting
that it had never claimed any affiliation with NASA or promoted itself with the agency's
name.


But the publicity about the July 4 landing of Pathfinder was the last straw, said Alan
Kennedy, an attorney in NASA's Office of the General Counsel.


"On Monday after the 4th, I had several e-mail messages from the Johnson Space
Center about this," Kennedy said. "It's misleading to use our name" in
another site's uniform resource locator. Because NASA is not an enforcement agency,
Kennedy said he went to the Federal Trade Commission "and asked if we could get some
help."


Network Solutions suspended nasa.com on July 11.


David Graves, the company's Internet business manager, told GCN, "We had received
letters from NASA and FTC that made it extremely clear that if we continued to allow the
registration of the nasa.com domain name, they would consider Network Solutions an aider
and abettor in a violation of federal law."


Host Networks did not respond to a reporter's inquiry, but Kennedy expects a challenge
to the action.


"I imagine there will be a hearing," he said. "We're going to fight it
if it keeps going on."


Two weeks after the death sentence was pronounced on nasa.com, Web sites usda.com and fda.com were
still pointing to Host Network pages, although these carried disclaimers of affiliation
with federal agencies as well.


Other government-style URLs include whitehouse.com,
a satire page featuring morphed photos of prominent Washington figures; dot.com, a site for Digital Optics Corp. of Charlotte, N.C.;
and cdc.com, belonging to Control Data Corp. of Arden
Hills, Minn.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has taken the precaution of
registering the noaa.com domain name. The site instructs
visitors to re-enter the address using .gov instead of .com.


Visitors to doe.com find a page flagged "How'd I
get here?" Domain owner Reeves Little, a Microsoft Corp. software engineer, tells
surfers to go to doe.gov if they are looking for the Energy Department, or to doe.ca if they want Environment Canada's Green Lane page.


"However, you are invited to stay and look around my pages," the message
adds.


As of late July, some visitors did stay to look at Little's pages, but the majority
went on to the DOE site or to the Canadian page.


Confusion between government and nongovernment sites arises because "there is a
lack of public understanding of the hierarchy of names," said Richard Kellet of the
General Services Administration, co-chairman of the Federal Webmasters Forum. "We
haven't really educated the public on the conventions of naming."


Aside from public education, an agency's best defense against embarrassment by a
look-alike URL is to register such names for itself.


Failing that, "if people want to spoof a site, that's free speech," Kellet
said. "It's our heritage. I don't think there's any harm done."


A directory to government sites appears at http://www.internic.net/ds/gov.html.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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