SILICON LOUNGE: God's Cybersquatter Saves Nader's Name
Presidential candidate Ralph Nader is getting his good name back, thanks to an evangelical cybersquatter in Kansas who 'saves' celebrity domain names like ralphnader.com--preferably in exchange for suitable donations to his conservative causes.
Rob Moritz, the director of the Shawnee, Kansas-based Dramatic Impact Ministry, has gotten a lot of positive ink since he got into the dot-com salvage business in 1997. Moritz registers addresses like patbuchanan.com to keep them from being taken over by opportunists, parodists, and pornographers eager to cash in on celebrity names. The Washington Post called him a "guardian hero;" The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dubbed him a "bipartisan Good Samaritan."
Now the former youth minister has sailed all the way in from the far right to rescue Nader, a progressive who champions causes like gay marriage. The attorney handling the transaction for Nader didn't return Voice calls, but Moritz's office says the politician plans to make a donation in exchange.
Moritz says he's just trying to be helpful. "I don't consider myself a crusader on this," Moritz says in a phone interview. "But I've had people call me some really nice things, like Saint Moritz, for trying to do for others what I would want them to do for me."
In May, when Moritz returned katiecouric.com to the perky NBC talkster, Couric told cohost Matt Lauer, "I have to say, the guy who bought me is very, very nice." Moritz's friendtofriend.com is peppered with similar testimonials. "Thank you for your good intentions," Frankie Avalon writes. ABC correspondent John Stossel says, "It is too good to be true." And actor Jeff Bridges gushes, "What a wonderful thing you have done. A donation is being sent to you under separate cover."
All gifts are welcome, and Moritz says some celebrities have offered only tokens in return. The Ava Gabor Foundation gave 50 wigs to the American Cancer Society. Peter Falk donated four charcoal sketches. "We invite them to donate," Moritz says. "We say, 'We're giving this back free of charge, no obligations. If you'd like to help, here are some causes we support.' Some do. Some don't." He would not reveal the donation tally, but emphasized that the incoming money has not yet covered expenses.
Some recipients of Moritz's aid question his avowed goodwill. Singer Art Garfunkel's webmaster, Donald McCarthy, says he learned through the Network Solutions registry that Moritz had squatted artgarfunkel.com. McCarthy contacted the Friend to Friend Foundation, which asked for a $650 donation. "We felt that they were in it for the money--$650 was pretty high," he says. "But we paid it. And we're happy with the results. We have the site now. No one can touch it."
Another celebrity, who asked not to be identified, provided a 14-page letter, dated 1998, signed by Moritz. In the letter, Moritz says his foundation is a "not-for-profit entity" whose investors wanted to "preserve" domains of well-known individuals. It explains why the Web is a "big deal" and why celebs need to develop a worldwide image.
Finally, on page 10, the price tag appears: "We do request two contributions. One is to the Friend to Friend Foundation for $350. The other is to one of the charitable works we support, for $500 or more. Together, the two gifts should total $850 or more." The donor can waive the Friend donation by contributing more than $2500 to one of Friend's chosen charities. If the celeb has suffered an "unexpected hardship," Moritz writes, the foundation will continue to protect the domain for nine months to give the donor time to gather the money. After that, the ministry "will consider releasing it."
Not everyone bites. Moritz has turned over 420 domains, but has at least 100 more waiting for resolution. He says he has "acted to protect" 80 U.S. senators and 40 governors. He snagged johnmccain.com, but the popular Arizona senator has yet to come knocking. "We're still waiting for him to call us," Moritz says. He's also holding out for New York governor George Pataki, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and Chelsea Clinton.
Singer Helen Reddy's webmaster, who asked that his name be withheld, says he received a pitch from Friend to Friend, asking for several hundred dollars. "I felt it was wrong," he says. "We felt that it was a scam, in a way, and we had no proof that this company existed." Instead, he hired a savvy network provider to go after helenreddy.com. Then he received another letter from the foundation, this one handing over the domain and encouraging Reddy to "voluntarily help." She sent an autographed photo.
Neither Reddy's webmaster nor Garfunkel's (nor most of Moritz's media reviewers) appear to be familiar with the preacher's Dramatic Impact Ministry, which shares an office and phone with the Friend to Friend Foundation. "Dramatic Impact is basically me," says Moritz, who explains that he makes much of his living by dramatizing the character of the apostle Paul, often on cruises retracing Paul's steps through Jerusalem, Greece, and Turkey. His ministry also vocally opposes Christian slavery in the Sudan at the hands of Islamic captors. "It's worse than the slavery we had," he says. "A person in the U.S. who had slaves a lot of times treated them like prize horses, valuable property. These [people] use, abuse, and throw them away."
The ministry's site links to many conservative evangelical groups, including Focus on the Family, the Promise Keepers, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, the Christian Interactive Network, and BibleNet.
Moritz says he purposely downplays the connection between the evangelical work and the foundation. "A lot of people don't even know I am a ministry," he says. "We didn't want anyone to question our motives."
The ministry's staff plans to tender an IPO for a for-profit venture, CitiesUnlimited.com, that would "save" the names of cities from pornographers. Moritz has reserved dozens of city names--such as www.usa-lasvegas.com/--and is planning to offer city guides and free e-mail addresses along the lines of email@example.com. All information must be "family-friendly," he says. He will include no strip clubs, and homosexual listings only "if I had to." He explains: "I do not feel it's appropriate to expose eight- and 10-year-old kids to the gay and lesbian lifestyle." He adds that the gay community too often "openly defends its positions." Moritz insists his approach is more humanitarian than evangelical: "We want to promote good people and good organizations and good works doing good things," he says. "I am a committed Christian."
Donna Ladd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.