"It's an odd scene to picture: a domainer's reps in a sit-down with Ephraim Inoni, the prime minister of Cameroon, to discuss the power of type-in typo traffic and pay-per-click ads." CNN
Early in August 2006, the Internet was awash with reports of a “typo-squatting” scheme involving Cameroon. According to these reports, “Internet authorities in in the West African nation that owns the .cm top level domain (TLD) have been accused of authorizing a DNS wildcard that has the effect of redirecting all accidental .cm traffic instead of returning an error.”
In layman’s terms, Cameroon Internet authorities were redirecting all misspelled .com addressed (e.g. www.dibussi.cm instead of www.dibussi.com ) to an advert-based website (agoga.com), where they were making millions of dollars in pay-per-click advert revenue (Pay-per-click is an advertising system where advertisers pay an agreed amount for each click delivered to their site).
While not technically illegal, since the misspelled domain names are not being registered but simply redirected to another site, these actions raised serious ethical concerns.
To many observers, it was obvious that this was too creative a scheme to have been hatched by Cameroonian authorities alone. Some even believed that the wildcarding of non-registered domains within the .cm Top Level Domain may have been done without the official consent of Cameroonian authorities. For months, therefore, attempts to identify the real faces behind the mask became a veritable whodunit saga.
This week, CNN finally revealed the person behind the .cm mystery in an article titled “The man who owns the Internet”. According to the article, the brain behind it all is Kevin Ham, described as “the most powerful dotcom mogul you've never heard of”. Based in the Canadian city of Vancouver, Ham’s empire is worth about 300 million dollars. Even more interesting, the article revealed that Cameroonian authorities were active participants and partners in the typo-squatting scheme, and that a cut from the adverts revenue (estimated by some to be at least three million dollars a year) goes to “the government of Cameroon” – yeah right!
Here is an excerpt from the CNN story:
“Ham makes money every time someone clicks on an ad -- as does his partner in this venture, the West African country of Cameroon. Why Cameroon? It has the unforeseen good fortune of owning .cm as its country code -- just as Germany runs all names that end with .de. The difference is that hardly any .cm names are registered, and the letters are just one keyboard slip away from .com, the mother lode of all domains. Ham landed connections to the Cameroon government and flew in his people to reroute the traffic.
Over a series of conversations a few weeks later in Vancouver, Ham shares some details about a deal that, despite his innate reticence, he's clearly proud of. About a year ago, he says, he worked his contacts to gain connections to government officials in Cameroon. Then he flew several confidantes to Yaoundé, the capital, to make their pitch. His key programmer went along to handle the technical details.
"Hey," Ham says, flagging his techie down near the office elevator. "Didn't you meet with the president of Cameroon?"
"Nah," the programmer says. "We met with the prime minister. But we did see the president's compound."
It's an odd scene to picture: a domainer's reps in a sit-down with Ephraim Inoni, the prime minister of Cameroon, to discuss the power of type-in typo traffic and pay-per-click ads. And yet, as with most of the angles Ham has played, the Cameroon scheme is ingeniously straightforward.
Ham's people installed a line of software, called a "wildcard," that reroutes traffic addressed to any .cm domain name that isn't registered. In the case of Cameroon, a country of 18 million with just 167,000 computers connected to the Internet that means hundreds of millions of names. Type in "paper.cm" and servers owned by Camtel, the state-owned company that runs Cameroon's domain registry, redirect the query to Ham's Agoga.com servers in Vancouver.
The servers fill the page with ads for paper and office-supply merchants. (Officials at Yahoo confirm that the company serves ads for Ham's .cm play.) It all happens in a flash, and since Ham doesn't own or register the names, he's not technically typo-squatting, according to several lawyers who handle Internet issues.
The method is spelled out in a patent application filed by a Vancouver businessman named Robert Seeman, who Ham says is his partner in the venture and who also serves as chief adviser at Reinvent Technology...
Ham won't reveal specifics but says Agoga receives "in the ballpark" of 8 million unique visitors per month...
Click here to read the complete story
"A disservice to Cameroon"
Like most deals that African government officials sign with business interests in the West, the typo-squatting deal is not such a sweet one for Cameroon, even though a handful of individuals might be reaping huge benefits.
As one blogger pointed out back in February, Cameroon could legally use the .cm error to generate legitimate funds destined for internet development in the country:
Setting aside the ethical issue with basically typo-squatting the entire .com domain space, this could be a great way for a poor African nation to raise some money. However, they could easily boost their revenue by building customized landing pages for the most frequently accessed domains. For example, amazon.cm should either redirect to the Amazon.com affiliate links or a page targeted towards ecommerce. I can’t even imagine how much money they are leaving on the table. The folks at NameView.com, who appear to be providing the landing pages, are doing them a huge disservice here.
Even more critical has been Enow Ebot Godwill, a Cameroonian performance analyst based in Denmark, whose analysis of the Camtel deal has been widely distributed on the Internet in the past couple of days:
"If CAMTEL can make money from people mistyping their domains, I'm all for it. The problem that I have is that the situation has led to a perverse effect with CAMTEL making NO EFFORT to manage the .CM registry and promote a real development of the Internet in Cameroon. The "quick buck" mentality has prevailed once again. Well known Cameroon-centric websites such as Cameroon-info.net, postnewsline.com, camerounlink.net, camfoot.com, and dozens of others who are the real actors of Cameroon's presence on the Internet are priced out of their own country's .CM which costs a whopping $400 to $800/year while one can register a .COM name for less than $10 or even get it free with hosting...
As a result, the .CM domain is virtually absent in cyberspace, just as if Cameroon didn't even exist! The reality is that, with CAMTEL making money from unregistered .CM domains, it has no incentive to increase the number of registered .CM domain names. The majority of emails originating and terminating in Cameroon are hosted on .FR, .COM and other registries because no alternative is being developed in the country. Again, when you redo the math, the cost in bandwidth to the country for email traffic hosted outside far outweighs any gain CAMTEL might have from its .CM shenanigans.
This literally means that the shameless sale of Cameroonian patrimony has extended to cyberspace the same way other Cameroonian assets are being often ILLEGALLY disposed of by those in charge of developing them. In the meantime there is no serious Internet policy in Cameroon more than 15 years after the creation of the world-wide-web.
Definitely another black eye for Cameroon...