Elsewhere in Slate, Jack Shafer makes the case for releasing the Bin Laden photo, William Saletan explains why the human-shield myth was a bad idea, Dave Weigel talks about how Osama’s death proved everyone right, John Dickerson looks at Obama’s poll numbers, Dahlia Lithwick says torture is still wrong, Chris Beam explains the mood in Pakistan, Heather Murphy compiles a slide show of the elite Navy SEALs, and Maura O’Connor looks at how the war still continues in Afghanistan. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit The Slatest. Slate’s complete coverage is rounded up here.
“You want to make a million dollars?” Ezra Azizo asked Maurice Harary at half past midnight Monday morning, an hour after President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. By 4:30 a.m., with the help of Azizo and an assistant in India, Harary had launched osamadeadtees.com. By 8 a.m., visitors had placed 500 orders. By the time I first called him on Tuesday, Harary said he’d sold 10,000 shirts. By Wednesday afternoon, he’d hired his fourth part-time employee.
Osamadeadtees.com is one of the roughly 2,000 Bin Laden-related domain names that have been registered since the terrorist leader’s death, most within hours of when the news broke. Merchandisers, domain speculators, and advertisers are all rushing to secure the most straightforward, memorable addresses for their websites—or for addresses they think someone will pay more than the $10-or-so cost of securing it. To get these numbers, I downloaded the DailyDomains.org list of the approximately 200,000 domains newly registered on May 2 and May 3 and tallied the number of names that included “osama,” “usama,” “binladen,” “bin-laden,” “binladin,” or “bin-ladin.” (By comparison, DailyDomains lists fewer than 1,500 registrations containing “japan,” “quake,” or “tsunami” for March 10, 11, and 12.) They range from the concise (osamarip.com) to the bewilderingly long (osamabinladenwaskilledonmayfirsttwothousandeleven.com), and from the celebratory (adiososama.com) to the paranoid (osamaconspiracy.com).
When we spoke, the Brooklyn-based Harary hadn’t slept in two days. “I’m just pumping, I’m not stopping. I’m just moving, moving, moving,” he told me. Harary has worked the holidays at some retail stores in the past. This year, he says, “Santa Claus rolled up in May.”
After paying for the shirt manufacturing, Google ads, and other traffic-drivers, Harary says he profits $1 for every shirt, which he’s selling for $12. The best-selling design portrays Bin Laden’s eyes X’ed out and a brushstroke across his mouth, all in red—a sort of morbid take on the familiar smiley face. Harary says most of his visitors come from major cities, with strong representation from Midwestern cities like Cleveland and Chicago.
The rush to grab Bin Laden-related domains “seems similar” in intensity to the rushes for domains connected to the Japanese tsunami and Britain’s royal wedding, says Jeremiah Johnston, the chief operating officer for Sedo, the world’s largest domain marketplace and domain-parking service. Though Johnston says Sedo has blocked parking for domains with “Bin Laden” in them since 2006, he’s observed enough domain rushes to get a sense of the online ecosystem Bin Laden’s death has created. (Sedo deemed Bin Laden domains “not commercially relevant” but has allowed “Osama”- and “Usama”-named domains because of those names’ prevalence in Arabic-speaking communities.) “But my instinct is that it’s going to get bigger. I think there’s more potential, long-term, in a Bin Laden name than the Japanese tsunami,” Johnston says. “There’s going to be a cottage industry in Bin Laden-related merchandise.”
There are a few ways to make money by registering a domain name. The first is to set up a new business as quickly as possible and attract customers who are searching for the hot topic, as Harary did. You can also buy a domain in hopes of reselling it to someone who wants it at a drastically inflated price. Last, you can direct your URL to a page stuffed with advertisements and profit off all the eyeballs that reach your site accidentally, known as “parking” a domain. A random sampling of the Bin Laden domains suggests that most fall into the third category. This isn’t surprising: A study published last year in the Association for Computing Machinery’s flagship journal found that about a quarter of all “.com” and “.net” websites are such ads portals. (The authors based this estimate on a sample of more than 200,000 domains.) Their lifeblood is what’s known as “type-in traffic,” when people looking for photographs of Bin Laden’s body types “osamaphotos.com” into their browser location-bar instead of searching “osama photos” through a search engine.
People who park current-events-related domains are generally looking for “quick cash,” Sedo’s Johnston says. Generally, a domain-parker will register hundreds of similar domain names at bulk prices around $7 per domain for a year at a time. After a year, they’ll jettison the domains whose ads haven’t covered registration costs. (Shiftier domain-parkers participate in what’s known as “domain tasting,” which takes advantage of the five-day grace period available for domain-registration refunds.)
“Most of them are really ephemeral, stupid domain names,” says Jacob Ruytenbeek, a California-based consultant who says he’s taking the opposite strategy with binladenfilm.com. He bought the domain, the first he says he’s bought for pure speculation, about 10 minutes after he saw “Bin Laden Killed” appear on an MSNBC news ticker Sunday night. Someone had already registered binladenmovie.com (in April 2007, it turns out), “but I was shocked that binladenfilm.com wasn’t.” He uploaded a basic WordPress blog, and seeded it with a few bare-bone entries, including a post announcing the domain was for sale. So far Ruytenbeek hasn’t received any offers, but he is planning to reach out to major movie studios soon. “I think the value of this domain name has not peaked,” he says. “It will peak as interest builds in a film.”
Scores of domain speculators like Jacob have put their Bin Laden-related domains up for auction or sale on sites like eBay and Sedo, with asking prices Wednesday afternoon as high as $21 million, for the awkward, 1990s-sounding eOsamaBinLaden.com. (Some perspective: sex.com sold for a record $13 million in November.) Other sellers are asking $1 million (05-01-11.com), $100,000 (osamas72virgins.com), $10,000 (binladennews.com), all the way down to starting prices of 99 cents (osamabinraided.com), possibly in hopes that bidding pushes the cost above the registration price.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the deluge of domain registrations, domain resellers seem to be having a tough time. On eBay Wednesday afternoon, $29.99 appeared to be the highest actual bid (for dead-osama-photos.us) among auctions for Bin Laden-related domains. Brock Martin, a night-shift machine operator from Findlay, Ohio, who buys and sells domain names on the side, said he jumped onto his computer as soon as he saw a generic “Breaking News” flash across his television. As soon as it became clear Bin Laden had been killed, he started typing. “Osamabinladendead—taken. Binladendead—taken,” he recounts. “First one I got was osamakilled.com.”
Martin has about 130 domains in his portfolio, which he began stocking after Michael Jackson’s death seemed to make instant millionaires of the “domainer” quickest to the draw. “This could be bigger than that,” Martin says of the Bin Laden domain rush. But, “As far as I can tell, it seems that people haven’t really paid much for them.” Perhaps buyers are afraid of the potential negative repercussions of starting a Bin Laden-themed website, he speculates. Noticing the lack of interest, Martin has already dropped the asking price for his six eBay-listed domains from $50,000 apiece to prices ranging from $1,800 to $12,500. But he’s accepting lower offers for consideration. “If someone offered one-tenth the asking price, I’d probably take it.” If Martin’s domains aren’t sold by the time he’d be forced to re-register next year, he says, he’ll just let them expire.