The Internet once appeared to be the ultimate platform for free speech - a worldwide audience and virtual anonymity for anyone with a gripe and a modem.

However, as chat sites such as www.icered.com have found out, allowing users to say what they like can result in legal complications. Now it appears that even registering a denigrating domain name can result in litigation.

The problem started with cyber-squatters hijacking the domain names of well-known companies and celebrities. Initially, domain-name registrars, such as NIC in the United States and HKNIC in Hong Kong, refused to become embroiled in disputes involving the ownership of domain names, preferring to leave things to the courts.

Although there were successful cases brought before the courts to force cyber-squatters to hand back domain names to which they had no legitimate right, pressure was growing on the registrars to Formulate an alternative procedure for dealing with such disputes.

The result was the Universal Dispute Resolution Policy which has been adopted by the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) and which is used by registrars of top-level domains (such as .com, .net and .org). A modified version also has been adopted by HKDNR which recently has taken over from HKNIC as the registrar for .com.hk domains.

Under the Icann policy, it is possible to file a complaint with one of several arbitration panels approved by the organisation. The panel will order the registered holder of a domain name to transfer it to a complainant who is able to demonstrate that the name is identical or confusingly similar to a trade mark in which the complainant has rights; has been registered by another party who has no rights or legitimate interests in it; and has been registered and is being used by that other party in bad faith.

This dispute policy has resulted in a deluge of claims, with more than 2,500 being lodged last year. These claims have not only been against "traditional" cyber-squatters, but have extended to "cyber- gripers" who register "- sucks.com" domain names.

The first of these cases involved a claim by Wal-Mart Stores against the holder of walmartcanadasucks.com and various other similar domains.

The holder of these domains previously had been ordered to transfer the walmartcanada.com domain name to Wal-Mart, and he stated that he intended to use the walmartcanadasucks.com domain as a platform to express his dissatisfaction with Wal-Mart's treatment of him.

The panel hearing this claim found in favour of Wal-Mart largely because of the respondent's history as a cyber-squatter. In particular, the panel considered that rather than using walmartcanadasucks.com to air his grievances, his true intention of registering this domain was to attempt to extract money from Wal-Mart. In other words, he was a cyber-squatter, not a cyber-griper.

In a series of decisions following walmartcanadasucks.com, domain names directlinesucks.com, dixonssucks.com, freeservesucks.com, natwestsucks.com and standardcharteredsucks.com have all been ordered to be transferred to various complainants on the basis that the holder of these names was cyber-squatter seeking payment for their transfer. Also, in a case which was not defended, domain name guinness-reaIly-reaIly-sucks.com and several variants were ordered to be transferred to the owners of the Guinness brand.

However, not all is lost for the true cyber-griper. In separate cases against the operators of the www.sucks.com Web site, panels have decided against ordering that domain names lockheedsucks.com and michaelbloombergsucks.com be transferred.

The www.sucks.com site allows users to slate a wide variety of corporations, politicians, celebrities and even countries, and both the lockheedsucks.com and michaelbloombergsucks.com domain names had been configured to point to the www.sucks.com site.

In each case, the panel held that by providing a forum for gripers, the operators of the www.sucks.com Web site had a legitimate interest in registering these domain names.

In an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of becoming a "-sucks.com" company, many businesses are adding a variety of "-sucks.com" domain names to their portfolios.

For example, the owners of the Guinness brand have registered "guinnesssucks.com" and "guinness-sucks.com" themselves.

However, with countless other domain-name options still available (particularly with the recent release of a new generation of top-level domain such as .biz), it is going to take a seriously determined company to keep ahead of the gripers.

First published in South China Morning Post in July 2001.