How Domain Squatters Targeted Candidates during the 2016 US Election

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New research from The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) has revealed the extent of identity squatting targeting this year’s presidential election candidates, as well as members of the US Congress and Senate.

In the run-up to this week’s election, CADNA sought to measure the extent of squatting amongst both incumbents and candidates for the presidency, Congress and Senate in the current election cycle. To achieve this, it looked at multiple domain name permutations for each of the 438 members of the US House of Representatives, the 100 senators, and the 734 challengers to their seats, as well as the Democratic, Republican, Green, and Libertarian party candidates for president, along with their running mates. Amongst the permutations considered (across TLDs including ‘.com’, ‘.org’, ‘.republican’, ‘.democrat’, ‘.gop’, ‘.vote’, and ‘.sucks’) were ‘fullname’, ‘fullnameforcongress’ and ‘lastnameforcongress’ with respect to the house members/challengers, and ‘fullname’, ‘fullname2016’, ‘fullnameforpresident’, ‘lastname2016’, ‘lastnameforpresident, ‘lastnamerunningmate’slastname’, ‘lastnamerunningmate’slastname2016’ and ‘lastnamerunningmate’slastnameforpresident for the presidential candidates.

While all four presidential candidates owned their ‘fullname.com’ domain, elsewhere the picture was more mixed. While 52% of the Senate registered their full name ‘.com’ equivalent, this fell to 39% when examining registrations by members of the House of Representatives. On average, a member of Congress only owns 1.38 of the 21 possible domain name combinations examined in this study, while their challenger owns 0.86.

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Similarly, official use of new gTLDs appears low. According to ntldstats.com, ‘.republican’ currently has 930 registrations in total, and ‘.democrat’ has 860.  In its research, CADNA found just one example of a candidate name in use at ‘.democrat’ (ie, that resolved to a developed website that is neither for sale, parked, nor being used for pay-per-click), being used by Mike Gallagher, the Democratic candidate for New York’s 13th congressional district.

Amongst trademark owners that have long suffered at the hands of cybersquatters, and have highlighted the issue in political circles, there may not be a lot of sympathy for politicians who have seen their own ‘branded’ domains fall into the hands of third parties. However, it does beg the question of whether politicians and candidates have missed a trick, given that the use of such domains may provide their opponents (or the supporters of opponents) with an opportunity to score political points. Amongst the fair use sites identified in the study was ‘PattyMurray.org’, which is run by opponent Chris Vance, ‘ClintonKaine.com’, which compiles a series of anti-Clinton headlines (and is owned by the Donald Trump campaign), and ‘RonJohnson.org, which, paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, offers a negative appraisal of the senator’s platform and past activities.

Of course, identity squatting for political commentary purposes is different from cybersquatting for financial motivations but the research also found over 100 ‘for sale’ pages based on politician names and 1,100 websites hosting pay-per-click ads designed to monetise errant user traffic.

In the press release announcing the findings, Josh Bourne, president of CADNA, comments: “While legitimate fair use of domain names should continue to be protected, bad actors looking to profit off of identity squatting and other types of cybersquatting should be deterred and prosecuted in order to put an end to these types of practices.” He adds that, although “politicians are widely affected by cybersquatters, the harm that emerges from such practices pales in comparison to the risks for consumers posed by cybersquatting on brands. Effective legislative policies that make cybersquatting a riskier endeavour can help keep the practice from remaining lucrative”.

Read the CADNA update here

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