In the latest chapter of an old controversy, civil rights groups have quietly registered some of the most racially and ethnically derogatory domain names on the Net.
In January of this year, two of the country's most high-profile civil rights organizations registered a dozen domains containing racist and anti-Semitic epithets.
"We registered the domain names because they were becoming available," said Tammy Hawley, chief operating officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP registered in the ".com," ".org," and ".net" domains six names that include the word "nigger." The domains are spelled both plainly and with hyphens inserted between the letters.
"We prefer to have control of the names and use them for antidefamation purposes, rather than let hate groups control them," Hawley said.
The Anti-Defamation League registered six domains with the word "kike" and stated similar motivations for acquiring them. "We registered them in order that they not be used," said ADL civil rights division director Elizabeth Coleman. "We knew they could be used as a vehicle of hate against Jews, and we wanted them off the market."
For its part, the NAACP intends to build an antidefamation site that will greet Web surfers who type in any of its newly acquired Web addresses. The ADL has no plans for its new domain names, other than to keep them out of use.
Curiously, in diverting Netizens to an antidefamation site, the NAACP may be borrowing a page from the ADL's Internet playbook. Last year the ADL joined filtering software provider CyberPatrol in offering a Net filter that led users seeking hate sites to the ADL site instead.
In the case of the recently registered domains, the fact that they were at first restricted and then registered to the civil rights groups has raised questions among those who have been observing the domain name system as well as critics of Network Solutions (NSI), the domain name registrar for the most popular top-level domain names.
Critics have accused NSI of screening domain names unevenly.
Network Solutions spokesman Christopher Clough said that the firm only screens for the so-called Network Seven, or the seven words that the major television networks will not air.
But last year, NSI came under fire for blocking some names that do not fall under the Network Seven, and for not blocking other controversial names.
At least one such name registered recently--"nigger.com"--has been at the center of controversy about Network Solutions' domain name policy.
NSI in the past refused to register the domain, but permitted the registry of other derogatory domains, such as "godhatesfags.com," a site registered by a church that espouses hatred toward homosexuals. Gay rights advocates asked NSI not to register the name.
The fact that NSI is now allowing the registry of names that it formerly considered offensive appears to signal a change in policy.
While expressing relief that the other civil rights groups had gained control of the derogatory domains, a representative of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) questioned Network Solutions' selective treatment of epithets.
"I'm glad that if offensive names are being registered that they're in the hands of civil rights groups," said GLAAD interactive media director Loren Javier. "But the same treatment that NSI afforded racial epithets was not accorded antigay epithets."
Others say that NSI, as the company that holds the government contract to register domain names, should not be in the position of being the arbiter of what is and is not acceptable, regardless of content.
Clough defended his company's choice, widely criticized last year, to reserve the racially derogatory domains while permitting the registration of antigay domains.
"We're in the business of domain names registration, and not in the business of making judgments," said Clough. "We're not in the content business."
In picking up their half-dozen variations of the derogatory domain names in January, the NAACP and the ADL neglected to reserve the plural versions of both words. Those two words were registered in April by a Knoxville, Tennessee, computer programmer who says he is on the side of the civil rights groups.
"I was bothered by the thought that a racist enterprise might register and use them to hurt others," said Randy Padawer, who is Jewish. "I decided to buy and hold them in perpetuity."
Padawer said he has no plans to use the names, and that he would transfer the names to the civil rights groups at no charge if they asked him to do so.
Padawer wondered at NSI's policy of allowing the registration of racist names while disallowing the "Network Seven" words that many consider benign by comparison.
"I'm surprised at how inconsistent they are. I can't think of things that are more offensive than 'kikes.com' and 'niggers.com,'" he said.