Socialsquatting – Finally Time For a SUDRP?

By Steve Levy

When brand owners talk about online intellectual property enforcement the first topic is usually domain names and the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP). Another topic might be the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by which copycat website can be taken down. But less discussed are social media usernames despite being so ubiquitous in our online lives.

Perhaps the simplest form of username abuse is outright impersonation of an individual or a company. The risks of socialsquatting are numerous including the spread of false information, fraud and phishing activity, stock pump-and-dump schemes, and general loss of control of personal or brand reputation. It’s not uncommon for brand owners to ask FairWinds to tackle an Instagram, X, Facebook, or LinkedIn account name that is impersonating the CEO or other senior executive of their company. Our efforts also extend to brands.

Unfortunately, there’s no centralized policy governing social media usernames and each platform sets its own abuse reporting process. Further, the standards applied by different platforms vary significantly and typically give absolute discretion to an in-house abuse review team. Each company can accept or reject an abuse notice as it likes with no explanation for its actions. This leaves high-profile individuals and brand owners with the task of filing patchwork reports to individual platforms and hoping that they will bring results.

When the UDRP was created, it was promoted as a faster and less expensive alternative to court litigation. It has a very focused mandate to address cybersquatting, it accommodates fair use and other defenses, parties need not be represented by counsel, and its remedies are limited to disposition of the disputed domain name. A Social Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (SUDRP) could have similar benefits and limitations while setting clear standards and providing a centralized venue for handling username disputes. It could provide for the takedown of abusive handles across multiple platforms, reduce subjectivity by each platform, conform to existing trademark law, reduce enforcement costs for complainants, and also reduce liability for the social media platforms themselves.

However, the challenges to creating a SUDRP are numerous. Each platform would likely assert the merits of its own policy thus making harmonization difficult. There is currently no central social media authority like the role ICANN plays for domain names. And the ability for username holders to defend themselves against claims would need to be kept affordable and understandable in order to prevent abuse of such a policy. This could be achieved if sufficient interest were expressed by brand owners and consumer advocacy groups with a possible nudge by legislators in the US, the European Union, and other countries or regions. Perhaps an existing UDRP dispute provider could start the ball rolling by drafting a policy and then shopping it around to some of the major social platforms.

But, for now, the best approach is to proactively search for abusive usernames and take action against them before they gain too much traction and become another fire to be put out.

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