Over more than two decades, Jean-Noel Frydman built France.com into a thriving business, selling tours online to Paris, Burgundy, the Riviera and other popular French destinations.
But on March 12, his business vanished.
That was the day the French government prevailed in a yearslong effort to seize the coveted domain name, persuading the company that had long managed it, Web.com, to hand it over.
“It was a shock to have everything that I’ve worked on for almost 25 years get destroyed overnight,” said Mr. Frydman, who was born in France and is a dual French-American citizen. “In one minute, it’s all gone, without any kind of heads up.”
Now, Mr. Frydman, who says he stands to lose millions of dollars in profit without the site, is fighting back — by taking France to court in America.
The battle, which began in French court in 2015, is more than just a curiosity: It could have greater consequences for the internet at large, said Vivek Krishnamurthy, a lawyer and instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, which is assisting Mr. Frydman.
“The reason why we got involved is that there seemed to be a chance of a significant injustice being done here and one that has really important implications for how the internet works,” Mr. Krishnamurthy said.
“Here was a case where the French government before its own courts was advancing a legal theory that, if it were true, could really disrupt the security of domain names,” he added.
In its early days, France.com, which Mr. Frydman purchased in 1994, had a particularly “Web 1.0” look, featuring a large table with borders, a variety of fonts and colors, and plenty of drop-shadows, according to an archived copy.
Over the years, Mr. Frydman overhauled its design and offerings. By the late 1990s, it boasted forums, classifieds, news, and information about weather and exchange rates. By the 2010s, it offered hotels and tours.
But Mr. Frydman eventually found himself drawn into an existential legal battle: In 2015, the French government, which had previously applauded the site, accused France.com of infringing on the nation’s right to the French name.
The government won several domestic judgments, most recently in September 2017, ordering, among other things, that France.com turn over the domain, with a penalty of 150 euros (about $180) for each day that it failed to do so.
But, in a lawsuit filed in Virginia this April, Mr. Frydman argued that not only did the French government lack the authority to seize the domain, but it also violated several American laws.
In the suit, which was reported by the technology publication Ars Technica on Sunday, Mr. Frydman accused the French government and Atout France, the French government’s tourism agency, of cybersquatting, hijacking his domain name, expropriation of property, infringing on his trademark, and unfair competition.
He also argued that since both France.com and the domain registrar, Web.com, are American businesses, the domain is property squarely within the United States.
Over the past two years, both Mr. Frydman and Mr. Krishnamurthy repeatedly made that point by email to Matthew McClure, Web.com’s chief legal officer, but the company refused to lift a lock it had placed on the domain when the wrangling began in 2015. It also ignored Mr. Krishnamurthy’s request that it at least warn them if it transfers the domain to France, which it did in March.
“They took everything away from me without notice,” Mr. Frydman said. “I’m 56 years old and, to tell you the truth, this is just incredibly shameful.”
Mr. Frydman, his lawyer in Virginia, David Ludwig, and Mr. Krishnamurthy all said that the French ruling never named Web.com, instructing only France.com to transfer the domain. Still, lawyers for the French government reached out directly to the registrar in November, according to documents it shared with Mr. Frydman, urging it to execute the transfer.
Today, visitors to France.com are redirected to France.fr, a tourism portal run by Atout France, the same organization that in 2009 named Mr. Frydman’s business a “tour operator of the year” and again presented him with an award in 2012, according to records included in the lawsuit.
Mr. McClure, the French Embassy in the United States, and Atout France did not respond to requests for comment.
While the litigation has taken a toll, Mr. Frydman remains optimistic.
“We had some really good years and, left alone, we would be having some really good years again,” he said.
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