But the IOC feels it has the standing to "recover" thousands of other Internet addresses, including 1,800 registered by non-U.S. residents. Some, like 2004olympics.com and olympic2000.org, might legitimately be confused with official Olympics sites. The organization, however, is casting its net widely, including such names as olympicairways.net and olympicaccomodation.net.
Legitimate organizations with persuasive claims to the word complain that the IOC is going too far. At issue is the question of who should oversee the world's Internet addresses, or domain names. The IOC is using a controversial new American law, the 1999 Anti-Cyber-Squatting Consumer Protection Act, in a highly aggressive way. The act allows organizations to gain control of misappropriated domain names in U.S. courtrooms even if those addresses are owned by people outside the U.S. Critics object that .com, .net and .org are global domain names, and thus U.S. courts should have no jurisdiction over them. "The Internet does not have any boundaries, so it has to be global," says Andrew McLaughlin, chief policy officer at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which administers domain names. "If the U.S. Congress has an anti-cyber-squatting law then maybe the E.U. will want one, maybe the U.K. will want its own, or China or Germany or wherever."
For the time being, companies will suffer. Consider the plight of British media company Trinity Mirror, which publishes the Daily Mirror and other newspapers and owns the Internet service provider ic24.com. The IOC has sued in the U.S. for control over several site names Mirror New Media had registered, such as icolympics.com and iseeolympics.com, for its coverage of these and future Games. "We want people to be able to go direct to our coverage of the Olympics," said Jill Playle, the firm's marketing director. The company used iceuro2000.com for its coverage of the Euro 2000 soccer competition without any problems. "We quite understand that the Olympic organizations have to protect their name, but it is the Games that will suffer if the organizers are overprotective."
The IOC insists it is only trying to protect the public. "We want to recover the URLs from people who have websites that claim an affiliation with us that does not exist," says IOC spokesman Franklin Servan-Schreiber. "Some are claiming to sell tickets they do not have, and others are promoting betting on the Olympics." But the IOC, an organization not renowned for its sensitivity to criticism, appears also to be trying to stifle coverage. Servan-Schreiber says that once the IOC had "recovered" disputed URLs, it would allow responsible organizations to license them. "This would give us more editorial control of anyone who claims association with the Olympics. People are easily fooled." In fact, the result has been to reduce consumer choice. Because the case would have been fought in a U.S. court, Trinity Mirror decided that it was not worth contesting. As a result the company will not be creating a special Olympics site but will carry Olympic news only as part of its general sports coverage. And there are broader implications. The fact that companies have been quicker off the mark should not be held against them, insists Francis Gurry, chief counsel of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a specialized agency of the United Nations. "Whenever there is a market there is speculation and that is legitimate," said Mr Gurry.
What WIPO and ICANN act against are bad faith, where domain names are bought simply to sell on to organisations which own a trademarked name. And in many of the Olympics-related cases, the company registering the Web address fully intended to use it for appropriate commercial purposes. "This is a classic example of the net running faster than the people on the ground," said Jonathan Robinson, CEO of NetBenefit, probably Europe's largest domain name registration company. A staunch defender of trademarks on the Internet, Robinson has some sympathy for the IOC's plight but he believes that they are going too far.
The real danger created by this dispute is that the IOC has chosen to fight in the U.S. courts rather than in the international tribunals which have been adjudicating these disputes. ICANN and WIPO have been slowly developing the competence and collecting the precedents necessary to create a truly global arbitration process worthy of the World Wide Web. If any organization should understand the importance of global cooperation it should be the IOC. But the ancient Greek proscription against engaging in warfare during the Olympic games apparently is lost on these modern defenders of something even more important than the Olympic ideal the world's most lucrative brand.
Steve Homer is a London-based freelance journalist who also owns the UK Internet directory service QAZ.com