Anybody who has had a friend sneak onto his or her Facebook profile and change the information knows the heavy reputational damage that can come from being misrepresented on a social media site.
But this harmless prank has a much nastier relative: Userquatting. Similar to cybersquatting, usersquatting is when Internet users register usernames on popular websites to mislead others as to the true identity behind the username. With the openness and ease of use of most social media sites, usersquatters can impersonate anyone from your next-door neighbor to the CEO of a major company to the President of the United States. In fact, during the 2008 campaign, a member of the RNC reportedly set up a fake Facebook page in Barack Obama’s name.
Now that many companies have realized the utility of establishing a presence on social media sites, consumers have become accustomed to seeing different brands sending out tweets on Twitter or setting up Facebook and MySpace pages. And unless the usersquatter is engaging in blatantly outlandish behavior, there is little to tip off other users that these accounts are being operated by anyone other than a brand representative. The National Arbitration Forum did an analysis of the top 100 global brands on and concluded that out of those that did have a presence on Twitter, only nine are controlled by the actual company, while 27 are controlled by individuals that likely have no affiliation with the company.
As of this weekend, Facebook began offering vanity URLs to its users, much in the same way MySpace did a while back. A New York Times article reported that since the release late last Friday night, close to 6 million users have registered vanity URLs. But not all of them chose to register their own names. Some chose names of celebrities, like “facebook.com/snoopdog” and “facebook.com/georgebush,” while others opted for a more tongue-in-cheek approach: one user scooped up “facebook.com/twitterisbetter.” The article also mentioned that Assetize, a marketplace where members can sell their online accounts, is auctioning such URLs as “facebook.com/iphones” and “facebook.com/hpcomputers.”
One of the biggest problems behind this issue, in addition to the damage that it can inflict on brand equity, is the fact that enforcement for usersquatting is generally ambiguous and not uniform across different sites. In another New York Times article, Howard H. Weller, trademark lawyer at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp in New York, commented that “these are all new avenues for abuse, and it’s more resources trademark owners need to devote to policing and enforcement.” And since much of the value of the vanity URL is speculative, only time will tell if the scramble is worth it.
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