Consumers, domains and astroturfing

  • An easy (but deceitful) way for businesses to trust and respect is to establish fake consumer organisations or campaigns
  • When ICANN opened applications for new TLDs, trademark holders campaigned on basis that the new competition would hurt consumers

Consumers, domains and astroturfingDigital Consumers by Dr Jeremy Malcolm
 
I WORK in the global consumer movement, for an organization called Consumers International.  We represent hundreds of smaller consumer organizations which work at the national or community level, and which in turn represent grassroots consumers in their countries or communities.
 
The consumer movement is trusted and respected for its role as an impartial watchdog, which allows it to fearlessly hold governments and businesses to account for infringing consumers' rights.
 
But this trust and respect is a valuable commodity, and businesses would do anything to get a piece of it. An easy (but deceitful) way for them to do this is to establish fake consumer organizations or campaigns to advance their corporate interests.
 
On the surface these look like they have sprung from the grassroots, but actually the sentiments supposedly being expressed by consumers are artificial – which gave this practice the name ‘astroturfing,’ after a brand of artificial grass.
 
Well-known examples of astroturfing ‘consumer’ organizations from the tech sector (some of them now defunct) have included Consumers' Voice (AT&T), Consumers for Competitive Choice (AT&T and Verizon), Consumers First (AT&T and Verizon again), the American Consumer Institute (AT&T and friends yet again), Americans for Technology Leadership (Microsoft) and the Digital Citizens Alliance (Microsoft and others).
 
Sometimes these front organizations also contain some legitimate members or tackle some legitimate consumer issues, but are still either majority-funded by corporate donors or corporate-linked foundations, or have directors or staff with close links to industry.
 
More subtly, industry will often openly fund a campaign, organization or event, in the hope that this may influence its agenda.
 
This month a Dubai World Conference on Consumer Rights was held, for which the principal sponsor was Pepsico, and which explicitly emphasized in its agenda the “benefits of IPR (intellectual property rights) and patent laws.”
 
Earlier I called Microsoft out on its “Consumer Action Day,” an orchestrated event in which consumers supposedly called on Microsoft to protect them against software piracy.

Consumers, domains and astroturfingDomain names
 
Although Consumers International refuses funding from corporations and corporate-linked foundations, we are still occasionally approached by lobbyists who seek to advance corporate interests (either directly or through a front organization), who would love to be able to say that they have the support of the global consumer movement.
 
Over the past year this has included an approach from yet another anti-piracy initiative, and several approaches related to the imminent release of new generic top-level domain names for the Internet.
 
Whilst piracy will be the topic of a future column, some words about the new domain names are in order, since this week (April 7-11) stakeholders are meeting to discuss them at a meeting of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) in Beijing.
 
Last year, ICANN finally opened applications for the registration of new generic top-level domain names for the Internet that would compete with the established domain names like .com, .net and .org (actually there were already 16 others – not counting country-code domain names like .my and .sg – but the above three are the best known).
 
In response ICANN received applications for almost 2,000 new domains, including multilingual domains in character sets such as Chinese and Arabic.
 
This triggered concern from trademark holders, who worried that the influx of new domain real estate would diminish the value of their existing domains, and require them to register “defensively” in perhaps thousands of new domain registries, in order to avoid those names being seized by competitors or opportunistic squatters (microsoft.corp, for example).
 
But rather than just campaigning against the new domains on the basis that “we are worried about having the money that this will cost us and the competition that it will create” – which wouldn't have drawn much public sympathy – they also campaigned on the basis that the new competition would hurt consumers, who would be confused by having so many new top-level domains on the Internet, or who would be subject to predatory cyber harm.  The Association of National Advertisers, for example, painted a dire picture:
 

For consumers, the possibilities are frightening. The Internet can become a veritable minefield for criminal activity when it becomes easier for online felons to cloak themselves in the name of a trusted brand. One can only imagine the harm such operators could have if they owned sites with TLDs attractive to children, to the aged, or to otherwise vulnerable citizens. … Customer confusion of brands could lead to consumer disclosure of sensitive personal information to persons intent on committing online identity theft as well as robbery and physical harm offline, particularly with respect to children.

 
Not only are these concerns overblown, but it is disingenuous for an industry lobby group to use the welfare of consumers as a pretext for the protection of its own interests. There are safeguards in place (some would say too many of them) to prevent new domains being registered that would infringe trademarks or create confusion with existing domains (there will be no .c0m, for example).
 
At worst the creation of so many new domains could be seen as unnecessary, but it is unlikely to cause consumers any significant harm.
 
Whilst the idea of greatly expanding the number of available top-level domains is unobjectionable, there may be consumer protection concerns with particular new domains, such as .doctor, .dentist, .lawyer, .hospital and .pharmacy.
 
Arguably, consumers may assume that websites registered in these domains have been vetted by an appropriate regulatory authority. The applicant for .pharmacy proposes to ensure that registrants in that domain only offer medicines that are legal for them to sell and for the purchaser to buy, based on their respective national laws. The other applicants have proposed less stringent, if any, vetting procedures.
 
But since there is no vetting of professionals who register domain names today, it is difficult to contend that the registration of new top-level domains that may have stricter requirements would endanger consumer safety.
 
Having said that, whilst the consumer movement has no reason to oppose the introduction of new top-level domains, we would support registries introducing stricter registration requirements for domains in regulated industries that would improve consumer safety, choice and information.
 
Similarly, there are domains for which we would like to see registration limited to consumers, rather than businesses. Top of this list are the proposed new .fail, .gripe and .sucks domains that consumers could use to exercise their right to complain about companies that have abused their rights.
 
It wouldn't be right if Company XYZ could register its own “xyz.sucks” domain to prevent a grassroots consumer group from using it to voice complaints about the company. Equally, it wouldn't be fair on companies if speculators could register domains based on their trademarks, without any intention of using them to air legitimate grievances.
 
Last November the Australian Government issued a preliminary notice of objection to the .fail, .gripe, .sucks and .wtf domains on the basis that they carried an “overtly negative or critical connotation.”
 
But that is exactly the point. Consumers have a right to be heard, and sometimes that means being overtly negative or critical about corporate or government practices that infringe their rights.  Hopefully the objection will fail, and I'll be able to apply for “australia.sucks” as soon as the new domains go live!
 
Rather than simply objecting to the creation of new domains, we should focus on suggesting how they could best be managed. Much as trademark owners wish otherwise, the consumer movement has no reason to call a halt to the new domain program, since it poses neither a dramatic risk, nor a significant benefit to ordinary consumers.
 
But there are a few domains that could make a difference, and our approach to those will be a constructive one, suggesting sensible ideas for how they might be managed in ways that improve consumer welfare.
 
Dr Jeremy Malcolm is an Internet and Open Source lawyer, consumer advocate and geek. He is also a senior policy officer at Consumers International and can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Previous Instalments of Digital Consumers:
 
How the Trans-Pacific Partnership threatens online rights and freedoms

Internet freedom in a world of states

Copyright enforcement is killing people

WCIT: Freemasons, Internet memes and salt

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