The digital election: domain grabbing in politics

When it comes to politicians, the name is an important component of their brand. So finding the right domain name really is the meat and potatoes when it comes to a politician’s online presence, as it’s the first stop for interested parties. But finding that the ideal domain is no longer available is a problem that even politicians have to deal with. With over 190 million registered domains, many of the most popular combinations are already taken – leaving business owners, politicians, celebrities, and more having to come up with an alternative.

My domain, your domain

Not all of these 190 million registered domains are in use, however, because of a lucrative business model called domain grabbing. This process involves a user registering domains that he or she doesn’t actually intend to use, but that might be valuable to other users or companies. Then they decide to put the domain up for sale and try to earn as much as possible from it. This is technically illegal in the UK, but can be a grey area depending on the terms of use for the domain. For detailed information on the legal background of brand or trademark rights, please view our digital guide on domain grabbing and cybersquatting.

But what if the domain owner wasn’t actually domain grabbing for profit, but instead was taking a strategic approach to profit from a famous name or to damage the image of a competitor? In the past few years, the unusual technique of domain grabbing has been a feature in politics, particularly over the course of a run up to a big election. This election has seen unprecedented new levels of domain grabbing, but what are the UK laws on domain grabbing and cybersquatting?

Tip

The 1999 Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act

While there are no direct laws governing domain name protocol in the UK, law in the States was clearly defined in 1999. The Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) was brought into US law to define a difference between domain name registrants who act in ‘good faith’ or ‘bad faith’. An example of acting in good faith could be to register the domain name donaldtrumpquotes.com with a view to offering a collection of quotes from the Republican candidate for the presidency. But bad faith is considered as making a blatant attempt to profit from the domain name, or registering a domain that is already a trademark or recognised brand. So if someone were to buy the same domain example as above, donaldtrumpquotes.com, but only to use it to generate ad revenue from site visitors, or by trying to sell it for a profit to Donald Trump’s team directly, they would be accused of violating the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. 

In the UK, any disputes with domain names have to be dealt with as matters of contract law and are generally referred to either the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) or the Dispute Resolution Service (DRS), set up by the UK internet authority Nominet to help determine rights in domain name cases and settle appeals regarding domain usage and bad faith.

Political domain grabbing

In the UK

Cybersquatting and domain grabbing haven’t been in the spotlight much with the recent UK elections, though that’s not to say that there haven’t been instances. One memorable example was the purchase during the last election of the ‘Conservatives 2017’ website by an anonymous, anti-Conservative buyer. The domain names were purchased and registered and, when they first went up, would simply direct visitors to the website Labour.org. Soon after, though, visitors to the Conservative website would be met with a satirical Conservative manifesto, which pledged broken promises, electoral corruption, and health care privatisation. In response to this domain grabbing attack, a similar anonymous buyer purchased the ‘Labour 2017’ website and used it for a redirect to the official site of the Conservatives.

In the USA

There have been a few notable examples of political domain grabbing in the US since the turn of the century. Two of the biggest cases involved household political names: Bush and Clinton. 2005 saw Hillary Clinton win a case against a user from Italy who had purchased the domain hillaryclinton.com. The usage and reasons for the purchase were deemed to be in bad faith against the Clinton name. Another famous example took place in 2008, when the domain for the George W. Bush Library Foundation, georgewbushlibrary.com, expired and was bought for less than $10 by a private user. It was then sold back to the library for $35,000 – a substantial profit. But these wouldn’t prove to be the last times that two of the best-known names in recent US political history were caught napping by domain grabbers and cybersquatters. Cue the entrance for Donald J Trump.

US Election 2016: Clinton and Bush are trumped again!

You could certainly argue that politicians like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush should be experienced in dealing with slip ups and potential pitfalls in an election. Especially when you consider the examples we’ve looked at above - Hillary had encountered domain trouble over a decade ago and Jeb must have been aware of the expensive slip up his brother’s team of representatives made in allowing their library foundation domain to expire in 2008. Yet in this long, fierce, and emotional US election campaign, these two political professionals and presidential candidates were undone by a classic domain grabbing candidate by a newcomer to politics: Donald J Trump.

Republican candidate Jeb Bush registered the domain jeb2016.com as his official homepage for the election, but failed to notice that the address jebbush.com was still up for grabs. Billionaire businessman and new Republican candidate for presidency Donald Trump spotted this mishap and took full advantage, registering the domain with a forwarding address to his own website. He ‘trumped’ Democrats candidate Hillary Clinton in a similar fashion, with hillaryclinton.net another redirecting page to Trump’s presidential campaign site. And they’re not the only two – typing presidentsanders.com, a potential domain for Democrats candidate Bernie Sanders, into your browser’s task bar will also give you exactly the same result.

Of course, Trump wasn’t foolish enough to fall for his own tricks. The Republican nominee took the time to register thousands of domains that have even the slightest connection to his name or the name of his daughter Ivanka, ranging from the routine to the quite bizarre. A list of around 3,200 domain names is in circulation in total – many of which are connected to Mr. Trump’s numerous business activities already in existence, while others offer a little wink and a nod towards what Trump may be planning in the future: donaldtrumpart.com, 3dtrump.com, trumpgrapes.com, trumpsoda.com, and trumptables.com are just some of these examples. But Trump is also using this tactic to prevent being badmouthed by rivals, particularly Clinton supporters. Perhaps wary of the domain hillaryclinton2016.com, a site that looks like the real deal but actually features many mocking articles and a damning assessment of her political views, Trump took it upon himself to add several derogatory domains to his personal list too, addresses like donaldtrumpnetworksucks.com.

You don't want to get 'trumped'? Check here if your name- or desired domain is still available with 1&1's Domain Checker:

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