Keeping True Identity Becomes A Battle Online

Since Facebook started giving out customized Web addresses like last Friday, some 9.5 million people have rushed to grab their top choice.

On Twitter, public fights have broken out over so-called impostor accounts, like those that should probably be in the hands of Kanye West or Bank of America.

And somewhere out there on the Web, another new service or social network is on the rise, threatening to start yet another online land grab.

Celebrities, companies and even regular people can be excused for feeling a bit of déjà vu. Staking out and protecting their names and trademarks on the Internet has become a seemingly never-ending battle. With the rise of social networks, registering a simple Web address like or is no longer enough to plant one's flag firmly in the virtual terra firma.

When domain names first became hot properties in the '90s, it was mostly companies that worried about claiming the right addresses. But in this more narcissistic Internet era, people who were once happily anonymous view themselves as online minicelebrities with their own brands to promote.

Those whose names are not unique may run into problems in trying to manage those brands. Chris Hardwick, a stand-up comedian and host on the tech-focused cable network G4, had no trouble registering a few years ago and securing the appropriate Gmail address. But he missed out on claiming his name on MySpace to a Chris Hardwick in Ohio. Last weekend, Mr. Hardwick got home from a performance too late to get his address of choice on Facebook; he said a high school student in England appeared to have grabbed it.

"It's like a Wild West town full of Chris Hardwicks with their hands on their mouses getting ready to draw on each other," he said.

To some, the rules of this new game are frustratingly hazy. Facebook has invited trademark holders and celebrities who find their names are taken to fill out a complaint form on the site. It says it will resolve disputes on a case-by-case basis. While Facebook's social network has room for many people with the same name, the new vanity addresses are being distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.

Twitter has begun verifying the identities of well-known users, giving them a badge on their pages that serves to confirm that they are who they say they are. But it has revealed little about how that process works. A Twitter spokeswoman, Jenna Sampson, said the program was a small-scale test at this point.

Tony LaRussa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, recently sued Twitter, saying it did not do enough to prevent someone from tweeting under his name. Twitter has called the lawsuit "frivolous" and says the network shuts down accounts used by known impersonators.

Another problem is that no one knows whether any of this online terrain has any lasting value -- only that accounts on sites like Twitter and Facebook tend to show up at the top of the list when people search the Web. So many people are plunging in -- including so-called cybersquatters who hope to profit, financially or otherwise, from Web addresses and accounts.

Larry Winget, the author of four popular books on personal finance, has been quick over the years to get control of his name on the Web and on sites like MySpace. But last weekend, a professed fan beat him to and then said he would turn it over in exchange for a face-to-face dinner.

"It's this constant effort, this sprint, to stay ahead of the technology," Mr. Winget said. "You've got to hire a person just to stay on top of it."

Companies are feeling just as much anxiety over the online name game. RCN, a cable and telephone service based in Herndon, Va., submitted a request last week to Facebook to secure But then Facebook said companies would need to have more than 1,000 fans on their pages to be eligible for the custom address program. RCN's recently created page had 527 fans as of Wednesday.

RCN executives say they are frustrated with Facebook's rules and are worried that they could lose what they suspect could be valuable real estate. Possible competitors for the address include people and organizations with those initials, along with the dreaded squatters.

"This is a new world that we are having to step into in order to protect our brand, and they did not give us a huge window of time to prepare for it," said Ashlie Ellison, a Web producer for RCN.

Social media sites give companies new ways to promote their brands, said Howard H. Weller, a trademark lawyer at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp in New York. But he added that "these are all new avenues for abuse, and it's more resources trademark owners need to devote to policing and enforcement."

The Facebook Web addresses in particular could be worth nothing -- Facebook has said they will not be transferable, although users could quietly hand over the passwords to their accounts.

But digital squatters are still trying, creating potential headaches for companies. For example, Dell grabbed, but Jeremy Fancher, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, registered and plans to try to sell it. A Dell spokesman declined to comment.

"I think it would be sort of funny if another computer company buys it," Mr. Fancher said. "It all illustrates how murky the water is when signing up for these accounts."