Beware the Twitter fakers

What do Kevin Rudd, Nicole Kidman, Coca-Cola and Nike all have in common? They are all victims of squatters of their Twitter identities, in what appears to be a growing phenomenon on the burgeoning social networking website.

A leading Sydney law firm is warning clients to register their identities on the micro-blogging site or risk losing their identity to a squatter or a rival.

Rather than see a replay of the domain names scam of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when opportunists registered prominent brand names as internet domains only to sell them to the trademark-owning companies for huge profits, Freehills is warning its clients to take control.

"Registering is free. Not registering could cost you in the future," a Freehills partner specialising in intellectual property, Frances Drummond, says.

Some companies, such as Billabong, have been quick off the mark, snapping up names. A Billabong spokesman, John Mossop, said: "Billabong has a strong online presence and that includes three official Twitter addresses: billabonggirls, BBgirls and billabong1973. It would appear none of the other Billabong addresses [on Twitter] are ours, so we're making inquiry into their ownership."

Others such as Coca-Cola have been forced to make do with less than satisfactory monikers, such as CocaColaCo. But in something of a first, the company has complained directly to Twitter about squatting on its trademark and succeeded in getting the CocaCola ID "suspended" and then handed back.

Last night a Coca-Cola spokesman had some good news to report. "We are now officially in possession of the 'coca-cola' account, as Twitter acknowledged the name as a registered trademark of the Coca-Cola Company," he said.

Clearly Coca-Cola sees the value of Twitter as way of it having "real-time conversations with our fans and followers, primarily around our shared passions for sports, music and online activities". That leaves a dozen other unauthorised identities, including Coca_Cola_Zero and coca_ cola, both of which appear to be run by fans.

Freehills's Drummond says: "It's great that Twitter responded positively to the complaint received from Coca-Cola but it remains to be seen how Twitter will respond to owners of less well-known brands or when there are brands owned by different people in different countries."

Nike is another company to have lost its identity; search Twitter for "Nike" and the site returns 175 results, with none clearly the official account of the global sporting brand.

Drummond says that unless an interloper is using the brand name to masquerade as that brand and possibly even sell products that are trading on that name, brand owners are relatively powerless. Unlike domain names, which require registration details, Twitter allows a level of anonymity that could give cover to those who might want to hijack the brand.

"There's nothing to stop another company from taking that identity and using it to their advantage," Drummond warns.

As marketers ponder whether Twitter will emerge as a mainstream marketing channel, some companies are using it as a marketing tool. The US retail chain Walmart recently tweeted: " - Spalding NBA 52" Steel Framed Portable Basketball System - $398.00."

To date, squatting has been a problem largely for individuals rather than companies; witness the furore over the Fake Stephen Conroy identity, unmasked as Leslie Nassar, a Telstra employee.

Even Kevin Rudd is dogged by the phenomenon; Twitter's search engines return 13 Rudd identities, including the less than complimentary KevinF---inRudd and kevindudd.

The Prime Minister has been forced to register KevinRuddPM because the simpler name of kevinrudd is taken. Mr Rudd's office said he has not contacted Twitter about the squatting issue.

Ben Phillips, a digital strategist at the advertising agency Euro RSCG, says he is seeing more evidence on Twitter of stalking, not squatting. Three minutes after mentioning in a recent Tweet how much he liked his new pair of American Apparel jeans, he received a notification that the company was now following his updates. Phillips calls it "anticipated stalking", which he says is an acceptable activity for a company.

What he feels is unacceptable is when other companies in a particular category stalk his tweets, which he says is more akin to eavesdropping. So, to take a hypothetical example, Levi's could follow Phillips and tweet directly to him in a bid to perhaps influence future buying behaviour.

Sydney Morning Herald