Politicians are scrambling to buy up Web sites based on any future campaigns, as cyber-squatters aim to profit from and bully would-be candidates by holding claims on their Internet domains.
The most recent example comes from Susan Payne of Montgomery County, who last week joined the Web squabble between Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, and his challenger Charles R. Floyd, a Republican.
Mr. Floyd owns several sites with variations of Mr. Van Hollen’s name, and has used them as attack ads. Mr. Floyd, who used the same tactic against his primary opponent, said Mr. Van Hollen should have purchased all Web configurations of his own name. Mr. Van Hollen’s campaign site is vanhollen.org.
Miss Payne, who is registered as an independent and does not live in Mr. Van Hollen’s congressional district, has bought more than 30 domain names — including Floyd4congress.com — for $10 each.
She told the Floyd campaign she will post negative information she has found about Mr. Floyd unless he removes the negative Van Hollen sites.
“Now I have a voice,” said Miss Payne, a full-time mother and longtime local political activist. “I’m not threatening anyone. I want the regular, independent, free-thinking voter in this state to be empowered.”
Miss Payne also offered to give Mr. Van Hollen his domain names if he agrees to meet her.
Mr. Floyd said he would remove the sites only if Mr. Van Hollen agrees to debate him. Because Mr. Floyd’s sites include disclaimers and links to Mr. Van Hollen’s official congressional Web site, lawyers say, the legality of his actions is uncertain.
Elizabeth Rader, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and Internet law, said she advises such domain owners to post disclaimers and links to real sites, and disclose that the site is intended to be a parody.
“The law is quite scattered in this area,” she said.
One test is how confusing the parody site seems.
“There’s a lot of stupid people out there — they could probably find some people who believed it was real,” Miss Rader said.
Miss Payne also has purchased duncan4governor.com, .net and .org in anticipation that Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, will run for governor in 2006.
She is waiting to see how Mr. Duncan deals with tax issues and term limits before she decides what to do with the domains.
Other Maryland politicians are stuck in the web of cyber-squatting.
For example, Omalleyforgovernor.com has been purchased by a group called Political Webs, not Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who is expected to challenge Mr. Duncan in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2006.
Even Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s name is on the Web for a re-election bid — Ehrlich2006.com is taken.
Vice President Dick Cheney recently got tangled in the Web.
During the Oct. 5 vice-presidential debate, Mr. Cheney attempted to direct voters to factcheck.org, a nonpartisan site run by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. But Mr. Cheney misspoke and sent people to factcheck.com, a for-profit advertising site based in the Cayman Islands.
Factcheck.com got so many visitors that the site began to crash, so its executives directed traffic to a site owned by George Soros, a billionaire critic of the Bush administration.
John Berryhill, a Philadelphia lawyer for factcheck.com, had said the site was redirected “to relieve stress on the service and to express a political point of view.”
Mr. Soros was not advised of the switch and did not know it had taken place until after the fact, said Jeremy Ben-Ami, a spokesman.
Since the rise of the Internet, cyber-squatters have tried to profit from a candidate’s name, or grind an ax against their foes.
Oliver Ditch, a 67-year-old retired Web developer who lives in Woodbridge, Va., owns vetsforbush.com and momsforbush.com. Mr. Ditch, who volunteers for his local Republican Party, is not looking to profit but instead is looking to help President Bush.
Mr. Ditch also owns jebcondi2008.com, in speculation that in four years, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice might share a Republican ticket.
He advises potential candidates to think ahead.
“If they have any inkling they might be running, they ought to buy domain names that are anything close to what they are doing,” he said, including negative sites. “The people who are against you will buy anything they can.”
Pete Lucas of Bridgewater, N.J., owns Frist2008.com, Clinton2008.com and Hillary08.com, all of which are advertised as “for sale.”
He started the for-profit venture in 1999 and started buying political domains “en masse” in 2000. He now owns at least 80 domains.
Mr. Lucas would not say how much he has made on his venture, but noted he made a few thousand dollars for Duke2000.com, a site used to market the Duke 2000 book by Doonesbury comic strip writer Gary Trudeau. (That domain now links to a pornography Web site.)
Billionaire Steve Forbes reportedly paid $100,000 for the Forbes2000.com site when he ran for president.
Bob Parsons, founder and president of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based domain name registrar GoDaddy.com, said squatters buy political names regularly on his site.
“There are speculators in domain names the same as there are speculators in gold coins,” he said.
People who feel their name has been used in bad faith can pay more than $1,000 to have the case resolved, but many opt to settle with the squatter to reduce hassle.
“That happens all the time,” Mr. Parsons said. “Time is money.”