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AOL beats Netizen in domain spat

The online giant quickly grabs the "AOLSearch.com" Web address when a New Jersey woman loses it because Network Solutions didn't have her company's full address.

A New Jersey woman apparently lost her claim to the "AOLSearch.com" Web address because Network Solutions didn't have her company's full address--and America Online didn't waste any time grabbing the name for itself.

Cybele Roberts Emanuelle, a Web designer for WebmasterFX, said she discovered one day in May that a Net name she had registered was no longer showing up when she typed in "AOLSearch.com." Her site, which had been at that address, was a clearinghouse for sites about African-American issues and culture.

Although she had paid for the name, Network Solutions had revoked Emanuelle's registration, and America Online picked it right up.

NSI said it deleted the domain name from its Whois database because Emanuelle had provided an incomplete contact address, which violates the Net registrar's user agreement and is cause for removal from its database. But Emanuelle believes she lost the name because AOL wanted it.

In April, an attorney representing AOL sent Emanuelle a cease-and-desist letter asking her to change her URL, she said. The attorney said her use of "AOL" in the Web address was a trademark violation and potentially a source of consumer confusion.

When AOL did not get a response from Emanuelle, the online giant went to Network Solutions for help. NSI then sent her a letter explaining that she had a contractual obligation to update her contact information. The letter warned Emanuelle that she had 30 days to update it or she would lose the name.

"From examination of our records, it looks like she neglected to have the suite number listed on her registration contact information," said NSI spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy.

Emanuelle's experience underscores a broader international debate over how domain names should be doled out and whether powerful trademark holders should get precedent over everyday Net name registrants. The new nonprofit corporation in charge of the Net's technical underpinnings--the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names, and Numbers--and Congress are now considering controversial proposals to give "famous" trademark holders special claims to their domain names. Critics say that policy favors big business too heavily.

For her part, Emanuelle admits she did not heed America Online's warning.

"I thought it could've been a run-of-the-mill thing," Emanuelle said. "I thought if they were serious, they could've taken me to court."

But AOL was serious; it had plans of its own for the URL. The company is planning to launch a branded search engine called AOL Search. The engine will use proprietary technology as well as technology licensed from Inktomi. Excite previously powered AOL's Netfind engine, which was featured on the AOL.com Web site.

After NSI sent her a letter, the 30 days came and went, and Emanuelle's domain name was taken from her. Still, she said she never received the letter, which brings the he-said, she-said back to the allegedly missing suite number.

While the database also lists technical and administrative contacts, David Graves, NSI director of business affairs, said those contacts are often unreliable, since they can be third parties that registered the domain.

"The only way we're dealing with the registrar is only to get to the registrar's address," Graves said. "We do not collect a fax number or email address to the registrar. Simply the contact's [address] information."

But Emanuelle said NSI had contacted her numerous times in the past by email. She didn't understand why, in this instance, NSI would only use unregistered U.S. mail to try and reach her when it the issue involved her possibly losing the name.

"They emailed me that my domain was deleted and transferred," she said. "At least AOL emailed me to tell me that they wanted to sue me."

But NSI's Graves maintains that it was Emanuelle's responsibility to update her contact information.

"We don't play favorites with large corporations or small businesses," Graves said. "We treat everybody the same."

News.com's Courtney Macavinta contributed to this report.