By Sean J. Miller - 02/25/10 11:00 AM EST
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) may be the latest politician to fall victim to cybersquatting — the growing practice of hoarding Internet domain names for profit.
Thompson is being mentioned as a possible challenger to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis). He hasn’t gotten in the race yet, but this month several variations of TommyThompsonforSenate were privately registered — but not by him.
That could spell trouble for his potential Senate bid.
Political strategists say it’s incredibly difficult to wrest these names back from the cybersquatters.
“You’ve got to get your domain name registered early, long before you consider running for office,” said Kari Chisholm, a Democratic Web strategist based in Oregon. “If you don’t do that, it is inevitable that someone is going to grab the domain name and make your life difficult.”
Candidates with deep pockets can pry them away by writing a large check, but others are forced to use less memorable domain names.
“If a candidate doesn’t have a good name, or is unable to get their name, it’s not out of the question to work with an agent to buy a domain name back,” said David All, a Republican Web strategist. “We’ve certainly done that with campaigns and organizations.”
Last year, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (R) was forced to pay a large sum to a cybersquatter to recapture several potential domain names for her California gubernatorial campaign.
She had tried going through an international dispute-resolution process but was unsuccessful. Former President Bill Clinton also went through a similar process to try and reclaim three domain names — williamclinton.com, williamjclinton.com and presidentbillclinton.com — but likewise failed.
“Candidates often have a hard time” going through Internet arbitration, said Matthew Sanderson, a Washington-based lawyer. “You have to establish commercial trademark rights in a phrase or in a name in order to win. Candidates are often not able to wrest their domain name back from a cybersquatter using that process.”
Going to court is also an option.
“Litigation is probably more of a sure bet,” said Sanderson. “The problem with a candidate using that is that if he tries to sue a cybersquatter, the cybersquatter may be outside the reach of the U.S., so there may be some problems with jurisdiction. But also, if Tommy Thompson sues, by the time he gets around to winning that litigation, his reason for wanting the domain name is going to be over.”
There have been some successful cases of candidates reclaiming their domain names. In 2005, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was able to recapture HillaryClinton.com after the domain holder failed to show up at an arbitration hearing.
Politicians aren’t the only victims. Several celebrities have had to fight for their website names. In 2000, Madonna won the right to Madonna.com through a U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) ruling. The WIPO ruled against singer Bruce Springsteen, however, saying a fan club had the right to register the brucespringsteen.com domain name. Springsteen’s official site has a .net ending.
Sometimes the cybersquatters aren’t out for profit, but are people in the opposition trying to create mischief for the candidate.
And problems for candidates can also pop up with others forming websites similar to their own. In 2008, the website johnmcain.com, with one c, looked remarkably similar to the candidate’s official page — it even accepted credit card contributions. These sites are almost impossible to shut down, observers said.
“If we have the opportunity to pick up a domain name to keep it from someone else, we pick it up,” All said. “It’s certainly a real strategy for both sides to be nimble, quick, thoughtful and for $9 a year through GoDaddy or another domain registrar, if you can force someone to have a domain name that’s 20 to 30 characters long, and that’s not very memorable, versus going to JohnMcCain.com, you know you can’t really beat the return on investment.”
Sanderson noted in 2008 that obamaforpresident.com hosted fantasy football, not the candidate’s policy positions. The site is now an advertising portal. Obama’s 2008 campaign website was barackobama.com.
Government entities also have fallen victim to cybersquatting.
The most famous case is probably whitehouse.com, which was originally a pornography site (the official White House website is whitehouse.gov). Clinton administration officials sent the whitehouse.com owner a cease-and-desist order, and he eventually sold the site. It also now appears to be an advertising portal.
The problem with cybersquatting isn’t confined to the Web. Social networking sites are also being used by squatters to affect a candidate’s effort.
“A lot of squatting goes on at Twitter,” said All. “We work with Twitter directly all the time to get handles back from people who are squatting on them, or they’re trying to impersonate a candidate or whatever the case may be.”
There will be increasing pressure on politicians to be proactive in registering their domain names, as cybersquatting largely has been eliminated in the corporate world, Sanderson said.
“That’s kind of pushed some of the pressure over to candidates, because cybersquatters recognize that political candidates are more vulnerable and they may not have a remedy at the end of the day.”