INSIDE THE BELTWAY: Looking for 'Government.com'? Want to browse 'Encyclapedia Britanica'? Prepare for an eyeful

Now here's an interesting fact. Should you have needed to communicate with the folks at Encyclopedia Britannica - for generations the world's pre-eminent source of knowledge on just about anything - you might, as all up-to-the-minute Americans do, have tried the Internet.

Now here's an interesting fact. Should you have needed to communicate with the folks at Encyclopedia Britannica - for generations the world's pre-eminent source of knowledge on just about anything - you might, as all up-to-the-minute Americans do, have tried the Internet.

Now here's an interesting fact. Should you have needed to communicate with the folks at Encyclopedia Britannica - for generations the world's pre-eminent source of knowledge on just about anything - you might, as all up-to-the-minute Americans do, have tried the Internet.

So you log on. But suppose you don't know how to spell. Well, you type in, say, 'Encyclipedia' or 'Britanica' or 'Encyclapedia Brittanica.' What would have popped up on your screen? Pornography, that's what, and not scholarly, Britannica-type porn, either - just the hard-core stuff.

What if you wanted to get an urgent message to the White House; for instance, 'Resign, Mr. President,' or 'Stand fast on prescription drugs' - and you typed in, as a matter of custom, 'Whitehouse.com' instead of the correct address, 'Whitehouse.gov,' you would have received more pornography.

What's going on here? The porn merchants, aware most Americans either can't spell and/or are careless enough not to distinguish among '.com,' '.org,' '.edu' or '.gov,' have tried to grab every Web site domain that includes misspellings of the most popular sites, and appropriated them for their own use.

The result, so far, has been virtual full employment for intellectual property lawyers, trying to right these wrongs. A former editor at Encyclopedia Britannica told me lawyers there spent nearly half their time fighting off the predators and ultimately protecting these erroneous Web sites, but not until substantial damage had been done and an enormous amount of time wasted.

Two ideas emerge from this tawdry recital - one philosophical and the other legal. The philosophical or, more properly, sociological, question goes to the rigidity of the Internet system itself. In any other form of communication and information retrieval, the misplacement of a vowel or a normal error of address would be automatically ignored and corrected - it is only the computer/Internet system that continually reminds us it is mechanical and not - as its manufacturers and proprietors would like us to believe - human or even corporate. (The post office and Federal Express, for example, are far more flexible and, for that matter, smarter and logical).

The legal question, of course (and one that will be front-and-center for all PR practitioners) is that of regulation. The ease with which predators of misspelled domains can operate will deserve increasingly serious alteration. 'Hands Off the Internet' is a catchy phase, but it only worked for a while - even in the Old West. Who will elect (or appoint) the Sheriff?



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