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Chicago 2016: Who Owns the Conversation?

Steve Frayne, owner of Chicago2016.com, says he wants a forum where the public can discuss Chicago's Olympic bid. The Chicago bid committee says he just wants to get paid.

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City officials and the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid committee are ramping up their campaign. Just a little over a year from now the International Olympic Committee will convene in Copenhagen to decide on the host city, and between now and then Chicago has to convince the world that it not only has the money and infrastructure to host the games but that its citizenry supports the effort.

Steve Frayne, a grad student at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, doesn't think Chicagoans should throw their weight behind the games just yet. "I don't see a unified discussion of some of the deeper issues associated with the Olympics," he says. He also says he wants to encourage that discussion. But how?

Well, Frayne owns the domain name Chicago2016.com. He bought it in 2004, more than two years before Chicago officially launched its bid for the games, though he didn't use it for anything until this summer. Now the site, which features aggregated content related to the Olympic bid, poll questions, and a solicitation for "citizen articles," bills itself as "the only site with a comprehensive, balanced discussion about the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid." Frayne says he hopes to see academics, activists, and other Chicagoans use it to explore issues like the economic costs, the burden of preventing a terrorist attack, and whether citizens want the epic hangover that often follows the world's biggest party.

But the Chicago 2016 committee says Frayne just wants to get paid.

In 2004, when Frayne was a thermal engineering manager in California's Silicon Valley, he explains, he watched controversy unfold over New York City's ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, as residents voiced concern over the potential for overzealous use of eminent domain, displacement, and diversion of funds from more urgent city improvement projects. But he was disappointed, he says, that there was no centralized forum where the public could discuss those issues. This, he says, inspired him to buy up more than 40 domain names—"as many as I could afford," Frayne says—including Tokyo2016.com, Chicago2016.com, LA2020.com, NYC2020.com, and Moscow2024.com; he won't say why he chose the combinations he did or how much he paid for them. Frayne was betting that at least one of his city-year combos would end up short-listed by the IOC, and so far two have: Chicago 2016 and Tokyo 2016. Four days after he registered Chicago2016.com, the city, considering a bid, registered Chicago2016.org.

"I saw a need for [discussion] in New York," he says. "I saw that there would be a need for that in the future, too, and I wanted to do it myself, and I wanted to do it right."

This past July 20, the Chicago 2016 committee and the United States Olympic Committee filed a complaint against Frayne in the World International Property Organization's (WIPO) Arbitration and Mediation Center, a United Nations entity frequently used by businesses to resolve Internet domain disputes out of court—though the parties can still go into litigation if they don't like the WIPO's decision.

Chicago 2016 says Frayne is violating a trademark, and that it's going after him because not owning the domain name could hurt Chicago's chances of winning the games—in application guidelines the IOC advises prospective host cities to take all "appropriate measures" to register the city-year domain for .com, .net, and .org. But Frayne, who registered the domain name four days before the city registered Chicago 2016 as a trademark, says the case against him is part of a broader plan to stifle discussion.

In their complaint to the WIPO, Chicago 2016 and the USOC accuse Frayne of "cyber squatting" and registering his domain name in bad faith—in order to divert business from the Olympic committee, publish false information about it, or force it into paying for the domain—which is illegal under the U.S. Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act.

This has happened with Olympics Web sites before: Web hosting company and domain registrar GoDaddy registered Athens2004.org and used it to redirect visitors to several other sites, including one that offered online gambling, and Network Solutions LLC registered Beijing2008.org but didn't put any content on the site. When the respective Olympic committees filed complaints, neither company fought them.

In the past the WIPO has ruled against sites without developed content, noting that "nonuse of the disputed domain name is neither a use in connection with a bona fide offering of goods or services... nor a legitimate noncommercial or fair use." But when the domain name has been purchased before the trademark was registered, or when the owner has used the domain for legitimate purposes—such as selling goods or promoting a nonprofit venture—then it's harder to prove bad faith, according to the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit that coordinates domain addresses around the world.

Even though his registration precedes the trademark, Frayne could have a hard time making his case, since it was four years before he put any content up on any of his Olympic Web sites. This summer he finally replaced default placeholder pages with "Future home of Chicago2016.com" and "Future home of Tokyo2016.com," though the Tokyo site hasn't been developed further.

Frayne argues that it didn't make sense to start any discussions until the IOC named its short list. He'd hoped to get the Chicago site up by the start of the Beijing Olympics, but that was delayed by the arbitration case; he says his lawyer advised him not to do too much with it before the decision was made. (His lawyer, Jefferson F. Scher of Palo Alto, California, declined to comment.)

But the Chicago 2016 committee also alleges that he demonstrated an interest in selling Chicago2016.com to them—one of the easiest ways to identify a cybersquatter. In a signed statement included in the complaint, Jeffrey Stiers, vice president of technology for Chicago 2016, said he approached Frayne in October 2007 to see if he would be willing to sell or give them the domain name. "I would be interested in talking to you about this though I have to plans to sell the my names," Frayne responded in an e-mail. Frayne says Stiers misinterpreted a typo—"I have to plans to sell" should have been "I have no plans to sell."

When the two met on November 14, 2007, Frayne says, he told Stiers he had no interest in selling. But Stiers says Frayne also asked how much traffic Chicago 2016 was getting on its .org site and how much the committee would value the .com site. Frayne said he would hold on to the site until Chicago won the 2016 games and then "study his options," according to Stiers.

Stiers's statement concludes, "From Mr. Frayne's questions and statements, I understood that he did not intend to sell the domain in the short term, but rather to profit from the misdirected traffic and perhaps look to sell the domain when Chicago was farther along in the process (perhaps after winning host city rights)."

Frayne denies this version of events; in a statement of his own to the WIPO he says that although Stiers asked him "at least four times" to discuss prices, Frayne never asked how much the committee would be willing to pay and insisted he wasn't interested in selling.

Though the WIPO hadn't handed down a decision yet, Frayne decided to launch Chicago2016.com to coincide with Oprah's special on Olympians, filmed September 3 in Millennium Park. It includes the "Top 10 List of Issues the Chicago 2016 Bid Committee Needs to Address," like "Hold a Public Referendum," "Limit Public Funding in Writing," and "Acknowledge Catastrophic Security Concerns." Frayne has reposted several articles by economists urging the public to consider the hidden costs of the games and enumerating unintended consequences, as well as one by an environmental consultant questioning Chicago's ability to hold a "green" Olympics. He links to articles and columns about the Olympic bid (including Ben Joravsky's in this paper) and invites the public to answer multiple-choice questions like "Do you support the Olympics coming to Chicago?" and "How do you feel about Chicago hosting the Olympics?" Visitors can submit essays about their Olympic hopes and anxieties, but there's no blog or comments function—Frayne says he has no desire to put up a "blog so people can just go up and write gibberish about anything." He adds that he's got plans for Tokyo2016.com, but wouldn't comment on whether it had undergone its own legal challenge. The Chicago site also includes a page where you can donate to the Chicago 2016 Legal Defense Fund. Frayne won't say how much he's spent in attorney's fees.

"I'm interested in making sure that all citizens of any city fully understand the consequences—both economic and security-related—of having the Olympics in their city," he says. "And I fully intend to discuss the same issues on Tokyo2016.com in a similar manner. At the right time."

In early June, Frayne says, Patrick Ryan, the Chicago businessman who chairs the Chicago 2016 committee, called him to set up a meeting. "He also informed me that he's the chairman of Northwestern's board of trustees," says Frayne, who's in his second year at Kellogg. "He just wanted to make sure that I knew that." Patrick Sandusky, a bid committee spokesman, says that's not true. "Patrick never spoke with him," Sandusky says.

Last week Frayne sued the bid committee in federal court, asking for an end to the WIPO case. "The arbitration process is not bound by precedent.... They can make any decision they want on any case and it's not bound to affect the future or the past," Frayne said. "I'm on the offensive now."

I asked Frayne why the domain name Chicago2016.com was so crucial to the success of his project—couldn't he host discussion at, say, Chicago2016discussion.com? But Frayne argues that if he has to give up the site, it won't just be him who loses. He compares the situation to the Chinese government's crackdown on dissenters during the Beijing Olympics. "I don't want to see the same extreme measures used in Chicago," Frayne says. "If the bid committee is willing to go to these lengths to stop open, honest discussion of the merits of the games by taking my Web site away, I'd hate to see what their plans include in order to run a smooth Olympics."v

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