Last updated: January 11, 2012 10:15 pm

Blackstone turns hostile on website names

Blackstone Group has been quietly acquiring hostile web domain names in an attempt to head off online criticism, at a time when political rhetoric in the US is building against private equity firms.

According to domain-registry records, MarkMonitor, a brand protection firm, has registered sites including blackstonesucks.com and schwarzmansucks.com, for the group’s chief executive, Stephen Schwarzman.

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The moves follow similar tactics by Bank of America in December 2010, which registered hundreds of disparaging web addresses ahead of anticipated criticism from WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website, though this has yet to materialise.

Mr Schwarzman has said recently that he was “concerned about politically motivated attacks on private equity if Mitt Romney, founder of Bain Capital, becomes the Republican nominee for president”. Mr Romney is leading the race for the party’s nomination ahead of this year’s general election.

Large companies have become increasingly concerned about domain-name hijacking. In spite of fears firms could be forced to spend millions to protect their copyrights, several hundred new domain suffixes to add to .com are set to be created from Thursday under the “generic top level domain” scheme.

Blackstone had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing. A spokesperson for MarkMonitor declined to confirm or deny that Blackstone was a client but said this kind of “defensive registration” was “very common with large brands”.

Some companies register several hundred or even thousand critical domain names or those similar to its official homepage, to prevent consumer confusion and hijacking by activists.

With .com domains selling for around $10 each and international domain names often several times more, such activity can quickly become costly for nervous brands.

“Trying to get every single permutation is not going to be possible and would be extremely expensive so you have to go for the most common types of defensives,” MarkMonitor said. “Certainly the word ‘sucks’ is a common permutation.”

Financial services firms have typically been “quite sophisticated” in managing their online presence, the spokesperson added, given the sensitivity of handling money and personal information and protecting it from hijacking by frausters, such as phishing.

“Different companies take different views,” said Jason Rawkins, partner at Taylor Wessing, a London law firm with expertise in domain-name cases. “Some do loads of these kinds of things, others take a more pragmatic view and say, we can’t deal with everything so let’s just deal with it when arises. There’s always a variant you haven’t thought of.”

Domain names can sometimes be reclaimed through their national registries, which typically operate a panel of experts to weigh complaints that a URL may mislead consumers if not owned by a company or brand.

“‘Sucks’ domains are notoriously difficulty because it’s obvious by the name itself that it’s not going to be the company,” Mr Rawkins said.

Blackstone does not appear to have registered critical usernames on social media sites, with the “blackstonesucks” appendage turning up no results on Twitter or Facebook as of early Tuesday. But following initial publication of this story, a “blackstonesucks” account was set up on Twitter.

“The traditional thing is to worry about domain names but that’s only half the story when you have Facebook and Twitter out there,” Mr Rawkins said.

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