The Dot-Vote Crusade to Defend Politicians From Cybersquatters
Jeb Bush would love it if you visited his website (you can see why, given his recent poll numbers). He’d be less happy if you clicked on JebBush.com. Head to what seems like the most obvious URL for his campaign, and you’ll be redirected to a big smirking picture of Donald Trump flashing a peace sign on his official site and a banner that declares “SHOW YOUR SUPPORT FOR DONALD TRUMP.”
This is not exactly the type of exposure the Bush campaign is hoping for.
But Bush is hardly the only candidate in this election cycle to fall victim to political cybersquatting—in which opportunists buy potentially valuable domain names, use them to smear or embarrass a candidate, and, in some cases, charge candidates a pretty penny to buy them back.
In this election season alone, someone is using TedCruz.com to endorse President Barack Obama. CarlyFiorina.org features one sad emoticon for every person she laid off as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. And Senator Rand Paul reportedly paid $100,000 to buy RandPaul.com. The situation is equally perilous in Congress, where, according to the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (yes, that’s a thing), only around 47 percent of lawmakers operate the website that uses their first and last name.
But while we the media may revel in a clever redirect or snicker every time Senator Cruz mentions TedCruz.org (not .com) during a debate, cybersquatting is a massive headache for campaigns. That is why Chuck Warren, a Republican crisis communications operative, launched dotVote, a registry for politicians who want to protect the rights to their domain names.
Back in 2012, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, started accepting applications for new domain names beyond the typical .com, .org, and .net we’re all familiar with. Having seen one too many politicians fall victim to cybersquatting, Warren bought the rights to the .vote domain and its Spanish counterpart, .voto.
Now anyone who buys a .vote or .voto domain must sign an agreement verifying he or she is the candidate or represents the candidate. If it turns out someone lied, candidates can report it to the dotVOTE registry, which will immediately take down the website. The registry launched in March, and already nearly 4,000 domains featuring candidates’ first and last names have been transferred to their rightful owners. That includes, Warren says, the campaigns of Fiorina, Cruz, and Trump, though Trump, at least, has yet to make use of it.
“The candidate’s name is their best brand, their real estate, and more voters are getting their information on candidates online,” Warren says, adding that he hopes “voters will see this is a site you can go to that represents the candidate.”
Political cybersquatting is more than a branding issue, though, says Warren. It’s also a waste of donor funding, because candidates now spend valuable campaign dollars buying as many domains as possible, just in case someone else beats them to it.
If they fail to do that, says Josh Bourne, president of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, “Best case scenario for that politician, they’re faced with looking like they are behind the times. Worst case scenario for that politician, that third-party could be using the domain as a protected gripe site or to raise interest in an opponent.”
Bourne says he’s “looking forward” to seeing how new domains like .vote, as well as .gop and .democrat are used during the 2016 election cycle. Still, he says it will require buy-in from politicians across the board to be effective. Even Warren admits it may take several more cycles to know whether or not the .vote domain gains recognition among voters. After all .com remains the gold standard of domains. His hope is that the more candidates use the domain in their voter turnout efforts this November, the more familiar voters will become.
“As candidates or political committees use it, our brand will just build,” Warren says. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have a lot of candidates saying, ‘I want to own my first and last name for my website. I can’t get it with .com. I can with this.’”