Hillary Clinton, Cyberwarrior

New York senator hires big lawyer, saves domain name from squatter

Hillary Clinton, at first blush, would appear to have little in common with big-screen bombshells like Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, let alone such iconic sportsmen as the late Vince Lombardi.

But as politicians go, New York's junior senator is larger than life. And like each of these superstars, she has seen her good name hijacked by so-called "cybersquatters."

On July 13, Clinton finally launched photo: hillaryclinton.com, having wrested it from the notorious Italian Web operator who originally owned it. She's using the domain name as the home of her re-election bid next year. "This new website is a reflection of my personal commitment to make sure that our 2006 Senate campaign is successful," she wrote in an e-mail to her backers. Before signing off, she effused, "I am excited by the opportunities offered by our new website to engage my friends and supporters to exchange information and ideas. Together, we can make a difference!"

Hillaryclinton.com isn't all that new, of course, at least not as a bare address. Michele Dinoia, of Pineto, is surely aware of its lure. He bought the site back in 2001, according to legal papers, profiting from the appellation ever since. Web surfers seeking tidbits on the senator would type in her name and get routed to his page. There, they'd see a search engine, with pop-up ads and prompts linking to commercial sites. Every time someone clicked—on, say, "Lawyers in New York," or "Bill Clinton"—Dinoia would earn 20 cents.

Simply put, Dinoia was duping folks, making it look like his site was related to Clinton, all the while lining his pockets. D.C. attorney James Lamb, who filed a February 1 complaint over the site on behalf of Clinton and her campaign, puts it another way: "The way he was using her name was not in good faith."

The campaign didn't discover Dinoia's page until last year, when a staffer was cruising around in search of domain names for another site. The old friendsofhillary.com effort had grown stale. People wanted a catchier, yet logical tag. "We wanted the name most people associate with the senator," says Ann Lewis, the campaign spokesperson—which would be Hillary Clinton, natch.

Hence the February complaint. Lamb filed it with the National Arbitration Forum, in Minneapolis, a panel of lawyers and retired judges that enforces the rules for domain name disputes. Those rules are laid out by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and are used by arbitration panels across the globe.

In her complaint, Clinton had to show three things—first, that the domain name registered by Dinoia was "identical or confusingly similar" to her personal name. Second, that he had no "rights or legitimate interests" in it. And third, that he was using it in "bad faith."

On March 18, the Forum's arbitrator, Tyrus Atkinson, ruled for the senator. "The panel concludes that relief shall be granted," he declared, ordering transfer of the domain name from Dinoia to Clinton.

Interestingly, Dinoia never put up a fight, declining to submit a written response to the complaint. Dinoia didn't contact Lamb, nor the campaign. And he declined to respond to two e-mails from the Voice seeking comment for this article.

Dinoia, it seems, has a habit of cybersquatting. He has bought up domain names for such famous brands as Kids "R" Us, Foot Locker, and Anheuser-Busch in the past, only to wind up sued by these companies as a result. To date, he's been the target of 23 complaints, and has lost all but one. Last year, both political parties cried foul about one of his more infamous sites—"alqaeda.com"—featuring links to their 2004 fundraising pitches. In an article published in Domains Magazine, Dinoia defended his practices.

"We have a lot of domain names," he told the online publication. "We own every kind of domain name that can generate traffic."

Now, he owns one less. But there are plenty of Dinoias in the Web world, registering the would-be domain names of famous companies and people. San Francisco lawyer Eric Sinod, who wrote a USA Today column on Clinton's case, has handled dozens of these disputes and, in each, finds it all comes down to money. Some cybersquatters register as many domain names as possible to extort cash. Others just try to boost the value of their sites.

And, yes, politicians can fall victim to the phenomenon, as enemies see cybersquatting as a way to sabotage elections. Last spring, C. Virginia Fields discovered as much when activists opposed to her mayoral candidacy laid claim to virginiafields.com. Meanwhile, Clinton's advisers say her online victory has generated calls from elected officials, eager to get their own names back.

Over at the new hillaryclinton.com, the staff is mixing it up, offering online tools allowing Hillary fans to send money, host house parties, and write letters to the editor, building grassroots support through the power of the Web. "This is a new generation," Lewis says, "and it has a new name."

 
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