Singapore

Cybersquatters cannot enforce valid contracts: High Court ruling

The High Court has made clear in a test case that a cybersquatter cannot enforce an otherwise valid contract as a matter of public policy.

Senior Judge Lai Siu Chiu, in judgment grounds yesterday, found the indiscriminate registration of generic and non-generic names by management consultancy company 3 Corporate Services, domain registrar Top3 Media and others named in the case, made them serial or consummate cybersquatters, a point made by defence lawyers for ride-hailing giant Grabtaxi Holdings.

3 Corporate Services (3CS) had sued Grabtaxi in 2018, arguing that it had reneged on a US$250,000 deal to buy domain name "grab.co.id".

Grab called off the deal as it felt the dealings of the company's sole director Mark Ho "raised too many questions".

But 3CS argued that there was a binding contract based on the Letter of Offer with Grab.

Grab countered, among other things, that 3CS engaged in cybersquatting, which is contrary to public policy and, in turn, makes the contract unenforceable.

Grab found that 3CS, a company with a paid-up capital of $100, did not own the domain name for sale.

The name was owned by Top3 Media, in which Mr Ho and his brother each owned 50 per cent shares.

Grab's lawyer Liew Teck Huat from Niru & Co submitted that cybersquatters generally have no interest in the domain names they squat on, and which they acquire solely to make a profit, by transferring or renting the names to businesses bearing the names they cybersquat on.

3CS countered that Top3 had built up Grab as a brand for its business and also used "grab.com.sg" for a few months in Singapore on a "pay per click" basis. But it stopped when the website did not take off.

It agreed that Top3's business in Indonesia and Singapore had nothing to do with ride-hailing.

Top3, as an accredited registrar of the Singapore Network Information Centre, had registered hundreds of these names for applicants as well as applying in its own right.

The court heard Top3 had registered domain names as a form of investment, but Judge Lai found that a "gross understatement" as the company had registered 1,232 domain names in its own right.

Among other names, the court noted typosquatting when Mr Ho registered a misspelt domain name "gooogle.com.sg" in 2017. He did so "obviously to ride on the world's leading search engine Google", said the judge.

NO STATUTORY DEFINITION

Judge Lai, noting there is no statutory definition of cybersquatting in Singapore or a universal one, referred to various international documents that dealt with the term, as indicated in an expert report.

Lawyer Daniel Soo from Selvam law firm, for 3CS, had argued that it was inappropriate for the court to regard cybersquatting as a new head of public policy when Parliament had not considered the matter.

Judge Lai said the case was decided in 1997 when the web browser was in its infancy.

"The use of the Internet has expanded exponentially since, with its attendant abuse. Such abuse must be arrested," she added, in dismissing the plaintiff's claim with costs.

COURT & CRIME