For obvious reasons, I’ve long had my eye on the domain name “calebcrain.com.” I didn’t feel any urgency, but it seemed better to own it than not to, if I had the chance. Until February of this year, it was owned by a woman in Texas, according to Whois, which reveals such things. My theory was that she bought it because she was friend or family to a young Christian musician from Texas who’s named, as it happens, Caleb Crain. As near as I can tell, he’s my only Google doppleganger over the age of twelve, and if he and I were to get out our respective family trees, I’ll bet we’d discover we’re related, since my family is from Texas as well. I figured he had as good a right to the name as I did, and I waited to see what he’d do with it, if it was indeed on his behalf that the woman had bought it. Nothing, as it happens. Shortly before the domain expired, I sent a note to the email address listed by Whois as its owner’s, because I had read that it was sometimes easier to negotiate transfers before a domain expired rather than after. The email bounced, however.
Domain names don’t expire quickly. Regulations require the registrars, who keep track of the ownership of domain names, to give owners time to have second thoughts. There seem in fact to be several intermediate phases of decay, which I don’t pretend to understand. All I know is that on May 9, the databanks at Whois listed the domain as in the status of “Pending Delete,” in a way that suggested it was then still in the hands of Melbourne IT, the company with whom the Texas woman had registered it. And on May 10, Whois said it was owned by a company called Domainsoftheworld.net, which owns between 2,500 and 3,000 domain names on any given day and advertises on its website that it sells domain names for the low, low price of $100,000.
Naturally, I freaked out. I went into research overdrive, and on behalf of anyone who might find themselves in a similar predicament, I’m going to share what I learned.
First, was it legal for these people to ask for $100,000 for the rights to my name? Not really. The practice is known as “cybersquatting,” and Congress banned it in 1999. Unfortunately, Congress made it a civil rather than a criminal offense; I would have had to hire a lawyer to right the wrong. (Internic, the entity that runs the internet, to the extent that anyone does, offers a domain name resolution procedure, but it applies only to trademarks, not to personal names, and it costs several thousand dollars.)
Okay, so I was powerless. Who were these guys? By various bits of Googling, I determined that Domainsoftheworld.net (whom I will henceforth call “Domains of the World,” because I can’t stand run-together brand names) shared a street address with a company called Snap Names, located in Portland, Oregon, which specializes in re-selling domain names. A lot of other dodgy sounding companies, with names like “Domains of the Day” and “Name Emperor,” shared the same address. It turns out that the re-selling of domain names is a big business. I figured it to be a shady one, but in fact Snap Names is a prominent company with a reputation to maintain; this I took to be a good sign. For years, more than half of Snap Names’s business came from raking up the domain names that the registrar Network Solutions deleted and trying to squeeze a little remaining profit out of them. Last year, however, the original owners of Snap Names sold the company to another domain name biggie, Oversee; some months later, perhaps miffed that the sale had taken place without their input, Network Solutions started giving its discarded domain names to a new partner, and Snap Names is said to be in trouble.
The fate of Snap Names, however, is neither here nor there to my story. As it happens, in fact, Whois reports today that the domain “domainsoftheworld.net” itself is registered through the company Enom, which is one of Snap Names’s big competitors. Whatever. I won’t even get into the patent application that Snap Names filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization for a way to find out about domain names whose deletion is pending “before the registry issues a public delete notification” and grab them before they’re publicly available. The larger point is, there are lots of very clever people who make their living by figuring out ways to take over domain names at the moment they expire, or even before that moment. I never had a chance.
What were they going to do with my poor name? Precious as it is to me, I did not think anyone was going to ransom it for $100,000. As a point of principle, I wasn’t going to pay them anything for it, and to the best of my knowledge, the only other adult named Caleb Crain had already passed. I pointed my browser toward the URL in question, and what I saw was a very plain, text-only webpage with links that seemed to point to topics that I had written about over the past half dozen years, along with links that were obviously just to the usual internet junk. Probably all the links, if you clicked on them, went to the usual internet junk. I did not click, but I got the idea. Domains of the World hoped that people searching for my name would arrive at their page and click on some of the terrible links, thereby earning them a tiny amount of cash. They weren’t really focused on me per se. They were doing this to lots of different domain names, more or less randomly, probably through an automated process. When they happened on domain names that brought in a reasonable amount of traffic, they kept them. The process is known as “domain tasting.”
A glimmer of hope: If my name seemed without value, they might let it go. Here, I think, my native paranoia stood me in good stead. Despite the intensity of my freak-out, I never typed “calebcrain.com” into the searchboxes provided on the webpages of Domains of the World, or of Snap Names, or of a third company, Logic Boxes, which seems to have provided some of the back-office logistics that made Domains of the World and Snap Names function. I was afraid to let anyone know I was interested, and I knew that these were the sort of people who collected such information. I may have been more paranoid than necessary; the thing about paranoia is, you never really know how much you need until you’ve failed to muster up enough of it.
I soon learned, from a site called Taste Reports, that every day Domains of the World deletes about as many domains as it registers—several hundred. (I even found in Taste Reports an entry for “calebcrain.com” listed under the date that my name was swallowed up, May 8—a date on which the deletion was still, as far as Whois and I knew, pending. Though Taste Reports was helpful in its revelations, I was consistent in my paranoia, and even on their page I never so much as let my mouse cursor hover over the link to my name.) My best bet seemed to be to hold very still and try to look as small and as unappetizing as possible for the next few days. Displeased with what it had swallowed, Domains of the World would then spit me out, the way the swamp creature of Dagobah spits out R2D2 in The Empire Strikes Back.
I would not be posting any of this, of course, if the domain name hadn’t been regurgitated. It happened this morning, and by midday tomorrow, if you type “calebcrain.com” into your browser you will end up at “steamthing.com.” As far as the strategy goes—don’t panic and stay paranoid—it worked for me, but I have no idea if it will work generally. Your monster may be paying closer attention, or may just be nastier.