The ever-growing field of 2016 presidential hopefuls is confronting a growing nuisance as candidates look for a smooth launch to their campaigns: “cybersquatters”
The issue of cybersquatting was cast into the spotlight this week when Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina failed to buy all the websites in her name.
The former head of Hewlett-Packard launched her campaign Monday, but not before a critic snatched up CarlyFiorina.org and used it to claim she laid off 30,000 employees.
The practice, which has evolved from the art of trolling businesses and celebrities, can be particularly damaging for candidates if a political rival or saboteur gets hold of one of these websites and uses it to smear their name, experts say.
“It’s something they need to think about when they start running for president or senator or governor, because if they don’t do it first, their opponent certainly will,” said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist.
Fiorina made a "rookie mistake" that other presidential candidates should learn from, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
“It’s becoming an emerging problem for politicians,” O’Connell said. “You’ve got to be smarter about your online presence.”
Cybersquatters can use the websites to “slime” politicians, he explained.
In Fiorina’s case, the cybersquatter attacked her business record. But the possibilities are endless. If the website had fallen into the hands of one of her political opponents, they could spread false information about her, or even use it to secretly collect donations to use against her, experts say.
"You can get into a lot of mischief,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “You could put out fake press releases claiming, ‘Carly comes out for the abolition of homosexuality,’ or ‘Carly supports ObamaCare enthusiastically.’ That would kill her.”
Cybersquatting has become a “headache” for many politicians ahead of the 2016 presidential election, said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) failed to purchase TedCruz.com before he launched his campaign in March. The website is actually owned by a supporter of President Obama’s immigration policies, which Cruz opposes. While TedCruzForAmerica.com is used to promote ObamaCare, another issue he opposes.
Two gay men own JebBushForPresident.com, which they use to promote LGBT issues.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton failed to register HillaryClinton.org, which spreads malicious software to visitors.
Other websites were snapped up ahead of campaigns appear to have been purchased with no ill intentions.
ChrisChristie.net, for instance, is the personal website of a mortgage planning specialist by the same name. BenCarson.org directs visitors to candy websites instead of the neurosurgeon’s presidential campaign.
The previous owner of BernieSanders.com turned it over to the Democratic socialist for a quick meeting with the Vermont senator.
But Fiorina may be the victim of one of the worst case of political cybersquatting.
Given her background as the head of a technology company, some experts were surprised she didn’t head the issue off.
“It was all so avoidable,” said McMahon, the Democratic strategist. “This shouldn’t happen to someone who claims to be a successful, intelligent, tech-savvy business executive.”
But as one lawyer who deals with cybersquatting points out, that isn’t so easy.
“I tell my clients all the time that they can’t offensively buy every domain name — it’s expensive and like herding cats — but key domains containing your entire name are considered must-haves,” said Joanne Ludovici, a partner with McDermott Will & Emery.
Politicians can try buying these websites in their name from cybersquatters, but experts say they may not have much luck if the owner is a critic intent on sabotaging their campaign.
The Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act prohibits some forms of domain theft, but it is very difficult to prove in court, lawyers say.
"Carly Fiorina really doesn’t have a prayer of getting this back,” explained Karl Kronenberger, founder of the San Francisco-based law firm Kronenberger Rosenfeld.
Under the federal statute, Fiorina would not only have to prove that she owns the trademark to her own name, but also show that the person running the website is acting in “bad faith” and has “no legitimate reason” to have her name in the website address, Kronenberger noted.
But there is nothing Fiorina can do from a legal perspective to stop the owner of the website from criticizing her online, Kronenberger said.
“If you’re engaging in your First Amendment right to criticize a politician, then you’ll have a legitimate use of the domain name and they won’t be able to take it away,” he said.