For presidential hopefuls, domain squatting now part of the game

Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s campaign never registered carlyfiorina.org; a harsh critic of the former Hewlett-Packard CEO did.
Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s campaign never registered carlyfiorina.org; a harsh critic of the former Hewlett-Packard CEO did. –REUTERS/Chris Keane

In 2002, Kerry Edwards probably didn’t know how valuable the property he owned would become. The 34-year-old Indianapolis bail bondsman simply wanted to post some family photos online.

Two years later, in the summer before the 2004 presidential election, his website www.kerryedwards.com was a hot commodity. According to The Washington Post, Edwards even hired a Cambridge company to auction off the domain, starting at $150,000.

Ultimately, the John Kerry–John Edwards team decided to pass, content to stick with johnkerry.com.

Fast-forward 11 more years and Internet domain squatting is as much a part of the political process as campaign bumper stickers.

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The presidential announcement of Republican candidate Carly Fiorina last week was marred by the fact that Internet users arriving at carlyfiorina.org were greeted by 30,000 frowning emoticons — one for every layoff she authorized as Hewlett-Packard CEO. Shortly after Chuck Todd pressed her on the topic on NBC’s Meet the Press, Fiorina’s campaign registered chucktodd.org — it redirects to her official campaign site, carlyforpresident.com.

Meanwhile, fellow GOP contender Ted Cruz — a staunch opponent of President Barack Obama’s immigration and health care reforms — has his own domain issues. Tedcruz.com results in a black page with six words: “Support President Obama. Immigration reform now!’’ And tedcruzforamerica.com redirects to healthcare.gov. Not particularly on-message for the Texas senator.

“In all cases, it’s about demonstrating a candidate doesn’t have their act together,’’ said Preston Maddock, spokesperson for the progressive political advocacy group American Bridge, which actively registers domains related to their conservative opponents.

During the 2012 campaign, newtgingrich.com, under the control of American Bridge, redirected visitors to a rotation of unflattering articles about the then-Republican presidential candidate and former speaker of the house.

“What you do with the domain can set a narrative about a candidate and put them on their heels right at the moment they’re hoping to build momentum,’’ Maddock said.

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“This is a really low cost, low energy exercise that can cause the other side a lot of headaches,’’ he added.

Elliot Silver, a Massachusetts domain investor, said people intuitively visit a politician’s name plus “.com’’ regardless of whether the politician owns and/or uses the domain name.

“This makes the matching domain name important to own or control,’’ he said.

There is a difference between domain investing and squatting, said Silver. It is illegal to register the Internet address of someone else’s namesake with the intent of making them pay for its rights. However, the First Amendment allows individuals to use domains containing someone else’s name as long as they have a legitimate interest in the site and are not acting in bad faith.

For politicians, not acting early can come at an expensive cost.

Rand Paul’s campaign paid more than $100,000 for randpaul.com just days before the announcement of his candidacy for the Republican nomination, according to the National Journal. In 2005, Hillary Clinton had to take legal action in order to get the rights to hillaryclinton.com from an Italian cybersquatter. And other Hillary Clinton domains are on the market for nearly $300,000.

There are countless other examples affecting both Democrats and Republicans, from Ted Cruz to Jeb Bush to Alison Lundergan Grimeseven prospective candidates in the 2016 New Hampshire gubernatorial race.

As BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski pointed out, there are individuals registering potential presidential campaign domains, such as clintonomalley.com, christiehuntsman.com, and more than 45 others. (Kucinich2016.com seems particularly hopeful.)

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According to Silver, who runs the blog DomainInvesting.com, most political figures are able to register their full-name-dot-com before they ascend the political ladder. In 2013, the law firm that represented Bill Clinton during his first impeachment trial preemptively registered over 25 domains associated to the former president’s daughter, Chelsea.

All of that said, according to Silver, the majority of political domain names are worthless.

The Washington Post’s Hunter Schwarz recently wrote that search engines and social media largely drive site traffic. For example, the official tedcruz.org was the 2,156th biggest U.S. site, compared to a squatter’s tedcruz.com (which directs users to a message to support President Obama) at 618,938th.

“Cruz can afford to not have the ideal web domain if he’s the top search result on Google because so many more people will get there through a search than a direct address,’’ Schwarz said.

Yet again, any marginal advantage is helpful in a campaign, said Maddock, admitting “silver bullets’’ are rare.

“One thing’s for sure,’’ he added. “If on the day of your presidential roll-out, the headlines on Gawker or BuzzFeed are about how your domain name was scooped, things aren’t going as planned.’’

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