In mid-1995, before "cybersquatting" became part of the household lexicon, Sue Beckwith snapped up dyke.com and lesbian.com and simply sat on the names. Unlike most cybersquatters, however, Beckwith wasn't after the ducats; she just wanted to keep those loaded URLs out of any gay-unfriendly hands.
The Austin, Texas resident may have unwittingly started a civil-cybersquatting trend, in which individuals and civil rights groups attempt to purchase Net-savvy bigots into obscurity by buying up potentially hateful names.
Try looking up nigger.com on your browser -- you won't find anything. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has made sure of that. Kike.com? Negative. The Anti-Defamation League claimed it in January 1998, along with k-i-k-e.com, with their common suffixes -- .com, .org, and .net. The NAACP followed a few weeks later with the six forms of "nigger" and "n-i-g-g-e-r."
"With the wonders of the World Wide Web comes this dark side, and it's very, very dark," says Elizabeth Coleman, civil rights director for the ADL, a Jewish-centered anti-bigotry organization. "We think it is important to purchase these names because we don't want them to be used by people in an anti-Semitic way."
The NAACP saw the advantage of owning the N-word. "It's a defense mechanism, you might say self-defense," says spokesman John C. White. "We'd like to avoid having hate mongers use the sites for that purpose."
Neither organization plans to put Web sites at these addresses, at least for now. "We didn't want to associate ourselves with that word," White explains.
Some, however, think such preemptively secured sites could be put to good use. NAACP Webmaster James Smith advocates using them to educate. "It's there. It's a resource. It could be informative about all types of ethnic diversity, not just African Americans," he says.
"It does seem like they're wasting an opportunity," says Michael Froomkin, a University of Miami law professor specializing in Internet issues. "But you can understand why they might think it's in bad taste to use these words."
Sue Beckwith kept her sites dormant for several years--despite a $250,000 offer from a pornographer for lesbian.com. Now, however, she has launched a lesbian resource site there. "Part of me felt like I was doing the lesbian community a disservice by just sitting on it," she says. (Web wrangler Amy Goodloe has maintained a similar lesbian community Web site at lesbian.org for nearly five years.)
Likewise, Colorado software engineer Jack Lakey is building faggot.org as a resource for gay men. "When I was being called names, it was either "queer" or "faggot," and those are the names I'd like to see not be used in a derogatory way," Lakey says.
A number of other high-minded individuals have joined the ranks of the civil cybersquatters -- one Californian registered chink.net and chink.org to keep them from someone "with less of an open mind," and a Tennessee programmer is holding the plurals kikes.com and niggers.com to keep them inactive. At the same time, perhaps an equal number of amoral entrepreneurs are trying to cash in, offering for sale such names as niggers.net and whitepower.com.
Given the vast range of naming possibilities, this recent anti-hate tactic may seem futile. Less obvious names such as killniggers.com and godhatesfags.com are both registered, for instance (though the former is inactive). Indeed, the anti-bigotry site hatewatch.org uses the exact opposite tactic to combat hate on the Internet: Hatewatch links directly to the bigots. "They do a better job of hanging themselves than we ever could," says Hatewatch founder David Goldman.
The ADL's Coleman concedes that domain purchasing can't possibly stop hate. "It's chasing cockroaches," she says. "Anything you do is small because the Web is so vast, but we have to speak out. These names were very obvious, so we bought them, and we may buy others."
For Beckwith, just owning the names is as important as their utility. "We need to appropriate the stuff that's ours," she says, "and part of what's ours is the names we've been called."
An earlier version of this story appeared in the Sept./Oct. 1999 issue of Mother Jones magazine.