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Typosquatter pleads guilty

John Zuccarini, a veteran of cybersquatting disputes, yesterday became the first person convicted under America's new Truth in Domain Names law. In tears, he admitted that he intentionally used misleading web addresses to lure children to porn sites.11 Dec 2003

Zuccarini is no stranger to domain name disputes, having lost actions to actor Kevin Spacey and companies including FAO Schwarz, Alta Vista and others.

In October 2001, the Federal Trade Commission took action over his practice of registering internet domain names that were misspellings of famous brands or names - known as typosquatting. For example, he registered 41 variations on the name of pop princess Britney Spears so that fans misspelling her name in their browser would be taken to Zuccarini's sites.

The most likely candidates to misspell addresses are, inevitably, children. Zuccarini had at one stage over 5,500 domain names registered, including, to use examples from the latest complaint, teltubbies and bobthebiulder.

Once in a Zuccarini site, users were bombarded with a flurry of pop-up windows displaying ads for goods and services ranging from internet gambling to porn. In some cases, the legitimate web site the consumer was attempting to access also was launched, so consumers thought the hailstorm of ads to which they were being exposed was from a legitimate web site.

And a Zuccarini site is very difficult to leave. In a practice known as mousetrapping, programming code at the sites obstructed surfers' ability to close their browser or to go back to the previous page. Clicks on the 'close' or 'back' buttons caused new windows to open, and more ads to appear - in the hope that the user will click on one and transfer to the advertised site.

Zuccarini, according to the complaint, was paid a referral fee of between 10 to 25 cents whenever a user moved on from his site to one of the sites advertised. The scheme earned him up to $1 million a year, and a huge number of complaints and civil court actions.

These culminated in May last year when a US District Court permanently barred Zuccarini from diverting or obstructing consumers on the internet and from launching web sites or web pages that belong to unrelated third parties. The court also barred him from participating in advertising affiliate programmes on the internet, and ordered him to pay almost $1.9 million in damages.

But Zuccarini did not comply with the order and in September this year was charged under the Truth in Domain Names statute.

This new legislation makes it a crime in the US to use "a misleading domain name on the internet to deceive a minor into viewing material that is harmful to minors on the internet." It carries a maximum sentence of four years.

In addition to pleasing guilty to 49 charges under the domain names law, he also pleaded guilty to one count of possessing child pornography, according to CNet news.com. Zuccarini apparently made a plea bargain with prosecutors, agreeing to a recommended sentence of 30 to 37 months' imprisonment. However, the sentencing judge is not bound by the agreement.

Sentencing is due to take place on 20th February.