In the coming months, ICANN will ambitiously expand the number of top-level domains (TLDs). ICANN could add ".movie" and ".paris", among others, to the existing ranks of ".com", ".org", ".gov", and ".edu". Here's another they should consider: a new ".pol" TLD that is reserved exclusively for political candidates and entities.
A ".pol" TLD is needed to alleviate problems linked to a now-common phenomenon called political cybersquatting. Without any legitimate affiliation, people around the world regularly nab rights to web domains that evoke politicians' names.
Political cybersquatting is now commonplace because candidates make easy targets. Candidacies often launch well after the press and public anticipate, giving cybersquatters a head start. For instance, Hillary2008.com was acquired in 1999 and RudyForPresident.com was snatched just eight days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Also, candidates operate in a time-sensitive environment and must secure a domain quickly to use it during the short campaign season. Cybersquatters regularly exploit this urgency to fetch a premium price.
Even with Internet users turning to powerful search engines to locate online content, cybersquatting significantly disrupts campaigns at all levels of American politics. Web domains are valuable to candidates and voters because they ensure better search-result placement for official sites, serve as a mnemonic for voters, facilitate voter-to-voter "buzz" about a site, and guard against attempts to manipulate search-engine results like "Google bombing." A candidate's ability to fundraise, communicate, and organize is impaired when a cybersquatter diverts traffic away from the candidate's site by appropriating an official-sounding web domain. And cybersquatting robs voters of assurance that the online location where they read, volunteer, and donate is an authorized campaign site.
Some cybersquatters simply hope to freeload on a candidate's real-world notoriety by hocking college term papers, debt consolidation services, and other wares to those searching for candidate-related information. But others' motives are more menacing. Former Congressman Henry Bonilla's campaign registered a dozen domains that included an opponent's name and then posted statements that misled visitors to believe the opponent lacked a campaign website. During last year's presidential election, a cybersquatter produced a contribution webpage at "JohnMcain.com" that was almost indistinguishable from that that found on John McCain's official campaign site, "JohnMcCain.com." It is still unknown whether any McCain supporters were swindled, but the danger of fraud was certainly present. And counterfeit contribution pages will only become more common as other cybersquatters imitate the JohnMcain.com scheme. Perhaps most alarming, though, some cybersquatters register domain names as a way to extract favors from, or gain access to, candidates. As one cybersquatter bragged, "Don't I kind of destroy the myth of one man, one vote? ... I hold a little more power than the average person."
Despite the myriad problems that political cybersquatting can bring, existing preventive and remedial measures are ill-suited to solve this important problem. A candidate cannot buy in advance all possible domain-name variations. Negotiation gives cybersquatters exactly what they want — a chance to receive an exorbitant sum. Jurisdictional limits hamper the Federal Election Commission's ability to assist. And remedies offered through the Anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act and other laws are too expensive, slow, and geographically limited to aid candidates who are often cash-strapped, short on time, and attempting to reach foreign-based cybersquatters. Even ICANN's arbitration process, which was established to address cybersquatting, leaves many candidates helpless because it protects only commercial trademarks, not rights obtained through political activities.
A new ".pol" TLD would not completely stop political cybersquatting. But it would reduce cybersquatters' economic incentive to purchase candidates' domains under ".com", ".net", ".org", and other non-".pol" TLDs. Candidates' easy access to ".pol" domains would undermine the price for which cybersquatters can ransom non-".pol" domains to candidates. Decreased traffic to non-".pol" candidate domains would also reduce non-".pol" sites' value to political cybersquatters wanting to draw away Internet users. In addition, a TLD reserved solely for candidates and voters to fundraise, organize, and communicate would lessen the damage done by political cybersquatting. Candidates would be able to timely and dependably access and control at least one domain from which to reach voters. Internet users would be able to easily locate candidate domains because ".pol" would provide a reliable shortcut for finding and identifying official websites. So even if, as was the case in 2008, a cybersquatter builds an imitation contribution page on a ".com" site, informed Internet donors could visit a ".pol" site for assurance that their money goes to the intended recipient. ".pol" would therefore significantly reduce the extortion, confusion, fraud, and reputation exploitation associated with political cybersquatting.
Some may object to a ".pol" TLD. For example, cybersquatters would undoubtedly complain that ".pol" prevents them from exercising commercial and free-speech rights. This would be true to some extent, but the countervailing interest of preventing political cybersquatting's harms demands some reform measure. Blocking political cybersquatters from only one TLD is a relatively non-invasive way of solving this considerable problem, especially since ".pol" is not currently available anyway. Cybersquatters would lose nothing but the opportunity to take advantage of bona fide candidates in an entirely new area of the Internet.
ICANN should accept this new TLD during its upcoming open application process in order to mitigate political cybersquatting's harms and to preserve the Internet as a useful medium for real-world democracy.
Mr. Sanderson is a political law attorney at Caplin & Drysdale, Chartered in Washington, D.C. His full ".pol" proposal appears in the February 2009 issue of The Election Law Journal.
By Matthew T. Sanderson, Attorney
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