Newday Computer columnist Joshua Quittner has made a thinly disguised effort to extort McDonald's Corp. - but humorously and for a good cause.
Quittner has something he thinks McDonald's wants, even if the giant hamburger company is slow to realize it, and he has suggested in a column he would give it up - for a price.
What Quittner has is the McDonald's name.
More precisely, he has registered the name as his domain, or his address, on the Internet, the global network of computer networks.
In a column Oct. 6, Quittner suggested that, if McDonald's installed a T1 data link to a New York City school whose computer project he once wrote about, the columnist would give the McDonald's name to McDonald's - instead of to a competitor.
"This is not a threat, of course," Quittner wrote.
"I never threaten. Besides, McDonald's has another option: It could change its name to Quittner."
The columnists tweak at the burger behemoth highlights a stewing controversy over the growing commercialization of the Internet, which for years has been the virtual meeting place of scientists and computer buffs.
Seeking to exploit the Internet's profit potential, businesses have created a stampede to stake claims to domain names - before their competitors do.
Quittner first wrote of the phenomenon earlier this year in Newsday and in a longer article in Wired magazine.
He reported how 2,000 requests for domain names a month, 10 times the rate of a year ago, arrive at the federally funded Internet Network Information Center in Virginia, and how the tiny agency doesn't have time to check for trademark violations, so simply issues the rights to a name to whoever asks first.
One of the first cases was a dispute between Princeton Review and its rival in the education business, Stanley Kaplan, a unit of the Washington Post Co.
Princeton Review had registered the Kaplan name, kaplan.com.
Internet users who accessed kaplan.com. found a comparison of the two companies, services - with the results favoring Princeton Review. In an arbitration case decided Oct. 4, Kaplan won its name back, Quittner reported.
Sensing an important issue awhile back, Quittner, with the support of Wired, asked McDonald's if it planned to register its name on the Internet. When he got no response, he registered the name "firstname.lastname@example.org" with the agency that acts as referee. Wired handled the paperwork and got the name a week later, in early October.
Quittner wrote that half of the e-mail he gets suggests he sell the name to McDonald's for a fortune, and that the other half suggests he use the domain to promote vegetarianism.
Quittner threw down the gauntlet to McDonald's in an act of journalistic blackmail, or on-line extortion - call it what you will - in the hopes that McDonald's would respond with an act of good will toward a group of students that needs a data line.
McDonald's wasn't amused. It is appealing.
"McDonald's is a federally registered trademark, and were sure the Internet is a vehicle for making our registered trademark available without our consent," said McDonald's spokeswoman Jane Hulbert. "We feel it's appropriate to appeal the matter to the Internet, and that's exactly what we intend to do."
Asked if his printed challenge was for real, Quittner declared, "I'm serious - but only so far as they are serious,
"Normally, we don't get to do things like this," the columnist said, clearly enjoying the mouse-that-roared game. …