Virtual Squatting

or, why cybersquatting is such a bad analogy

The UK has notorious squatter rights, or excessively lax housing rights.. whichever way you prefer to look at it. As a young 20-something year old I had the pleasure of squatting in London during winter. Unlike most squatters I had access to the Internet and knew all the dirty tricks. There's so many hoops that landlords have to jump through to evict squatters and most of them have absolutely no clue. There's nothing like getting the police to force a landlord to reconnect the electricity or gas that they've illegally interfered with.

The most important rule of squatting in the uk is that you must not force entry. If a window is locked, you may not unlock it. But in London there are lots of properties that are wide open for anyone to wander in and throw down their napsack.

Squatting for me started shortly after I found work in London. It was with a now defunct company that made high performance compilers for the Playstation II and other platforms that was situated behind a kebab shop. One day I saw a mattress leaning against the wall in the hallway that led from the street to the back courtyard. After doing my day at the office and working late, I headed off to the hostel where I was staying at the time and noticed the mattress hadn't moved. I had to investigate. Turns out it was from a freshly vacant property that was not adequately secured (the window was wide open).

This was my first squat. I lived there for almost two weeks. The problem with living so close to work is that you tend to sleep in later and later. One morning I slept in much too late and was awoken by a pompous landlord showing through an agent. The property was shit, even by London standards, but that didn't stop him talking it up as prime real estate. I was about to do the only sensible thing and lock myself in the bedroom. Unfortunately I had not yet secured the property - if I had, they never would have gotten in. With only my weight to hold the door shut I decided to cut my losses.

I apologized for being on the property and offered to leave immediately. The landlord called me a bunch of names and told me to get out. I swallowed my pride and headed for the door. As I walked out I saw him reach for his phone and call someone. I was half way down the stairs and expecting to hear the word 'police' any moment when I heard him say something to the effect of "don't give those bastard residents their bond back, one of them is still here." He thought I was one of the people who had been paying his morgage for the last twelve months. Risking my freedom I turned on my heal and declared his error. I claimed that I had just been passing by when I noticed the open window and had climbed the courtyard fence to get in. Thankfully he bought that story and told his agents to release the bond.

After that I shared a number of squats and even managed to find some share accomodation. That didn't go well - but that's another story.

As you can see, I have some experience with squatting. So when I first heard about "cybersquatting" I figured it must be remotely similar. I guess I should have known better. After all, "web surfing" has absolutely no similarity to regular surfing.

So what is cybersquatting? According to wikipedia, it is using a domain name with bad-faith intent to profit from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else. Sounds kinda exactly the opposite from regular squatting, wherein you're using a property belonging to someone else with no intent of profiting. Dunno about 'bad-faith intent' though. I suppose you could consider entering a property without the intention of entering into a rental agreement with the owner to be 'bad-faith'. I'm sure landlords do. Personally I just see it as utilizing space that is going to waste. Not to mention sticking it to rich people who would rather see people living on the streets of London than living in all the vacant property that is available.

Ok, so what if we refined cybersquatting to different squatting-like actions. What the wikipedia describes could be called "domain name cybersquatting". So what other kinds of cybersquatting can one engage in?

I think the whole squatting analogy better applies to those people who sneak into underutilized computer systems and install ftp servers - typically for distributing warez. Usually they don't break anything to get into the computer. This is very similar to the 'no forced entry' rule in the uk. An insecure computer is just like an insecure property, you should be legally allowed to enter it, look around and put it to some use. Otherwise what happens to the CPU cycles, harddrive space and bandwidth? It goes to waste.

Now that's what I'd call cybersquatting, but the domain name specific form is already in such widespread use that maybe it's better to define a new term.

We could just say 'system cybersquatting', but that's so vague as to be opaque. Other words like 'computer' or 'host' or 'box' are not much better and certainly don't have a good ring to them.

I'd suggest 'online squatting', but that has its own problems. I'm sure many people would think that I'm refering to the behaviour of some MMORPG players. In some of these games (not many) you are free to enter another player's house. If they're not around to chase you out then some may claim that you are squatting. However, I must stress, this is not squatting. Squatting is, by definition, occupying vacant property that is not adequately secured. Although you are free to enter a vacant property so long as you don't use force, it is still tresspass to enter property that is not vacant, whether you use force or not.

I think 'virtual squatting' is sufficiently powerful to suggest something more than domain name squatting and invokes phrases like 'virtual hosting' - where a single web server is used to serve multiple domain names - that could be a possible use for virtual squatting. So it shall be. When refering to the location of virtual squatting, please use the term 'virtual squat' or 'vsquat'. Googling 'vsquat' returns less than a dozen hits, most being spelling errors or other coincidental character sequences, so I think it's fair to say the term is available.

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