Next Problem Up: Reverse User Name Hijackings

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2009-01-27 Print this article Print

Iffy trade name claims aren't limited to domain names. Are Twit-squatting and Face-squatting new problems we'll have to deal with?

Have you ever signed up for an Internet service only to find that your desired user ID was already taken? Happens all the time.

In the world of domain names we have the concept of reverse domain name hijacking, in which a company bullies a domain name registrant out of their domain without clear intellectual property rights to the name. But what about user names on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter? If I have a company name and some user has registered that name on Twitter, can I get it from them?

Such a case came up recently-sort of, on DomainNameNews: A report claimed that the company Room 214 was pressuring Twitter to take the user name @room_214 from the user who had registered it and hand it over to to them.

Immediately I must point out the first comment in the blog in which James Clark, co-founder of Room 214 (twitter handle: @jamesoclarkI) denies the claims and indicates vaguely that some lower-level employee had done this, whatever it really was, without proper authorization. But it's over, Room 214 is not coveting the Twitter user name @room_214.

That still leaves us with the hypothetical case, though, and it's an interesting one: Domain names are one thing. They are managed to a degree in the public interest by ICANN through registrars, so people's rights to trade names in them are clear, I think.

Twitter is a private business, but they still protect trade names when used as user names. To quote Twitter policy:

We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.
So it's really no different from domain names in a way, but there's no agreed-upon independent arbitration process as there is with domain names (the UDRP). It's up to Twitter to decide. Maybe they can't be completely arbitrary about it, but it is up to them. What is the recourse for parties to name disputes? Probably private litigation, threatening letters, that sort of thing. And of course this is not limited to Twitter. Companies use FaceBook and other private services with identities for marketing all the time, and it's likely those companies will have an increasing problem of arbitrating access to names which some claim are protected interests.

By the same token, if you have a name you need to protect it makes sense to go to important social media sites, even e-mail sites, and reserve the names. It would be better to do this in advance so you don't have to be a jerk in the future to those who reserved them innocently. As for e-mail systems such as Gmail, good luck finding any good names left.

Going further with the domain name analogy, could it actually reach the level of tasting for user names on popular sites? In a way it makes sense, but it would be harder to pull off. Presumably, for instance, you could reserve a Facebook name speculatively and put up hints that it's for sale, but Facebook wouldn't approve. Maybe you could get away with it. You could also write a Twitter program for tasted Twitter names that sends out "to buy this name e-mail" (note: that domain name is available if you want it). Maybe you could get away with it.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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