City accused of cybersquatting
September 17, 2013
By Peter Clark
Water district customers hoodwinked
A city of Issaquah employee was directed to register websites in May in an apparent effort to deceive customers of the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District. That move could open the city up to possible lawsuits.
Mayor Ava Frisinger said in a letter that the move directed by the administration was designed to counter a “misinformation campaign” from the district.
In a Sept. 12 press release, the district pointed to two domain names it found similar to ones it employs in business practices. Both sites, owned by the city of Issaquah, not only resembled established domains of the district, but also took an Internet user straight to a city webpage entitled “Our water, our city.”
“The Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District recently learned that the city of Issaquah has created at least two misleading Internet domains similar to those used by the district to redirect customers to Issaquah’s websites,” the press release reads. “This came to the district’s attention when a customer called and explained how she kept ending up on the Issaquah city website every time she typed in what she thought was the district’s website URL.”
The sites letstalkaboutourwater.com and sammplat.org bear a strong resemblance to the district’s sites letstalkaboutourwater.org and its main website sammplat.wa.org. A city employee registered both sites in May, six months after the district launched letstalkaboutourwater.org and years after sammplat.wa.org became the district’s home website.
“This city has been under major attack from the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District,” Issaquah City Administrator Bob Harrison said. “They’ve probably spent well over $100,000 to defame the city and mislead a lot of people.”
Though he said the water district had lodged an aggressive approach for years, the domains were set up during the campaign it launched in the spring, which accused Issaquah of letting harmful fecal coliform drain into the groundwater. Harrison said when the district hired a public relations person to make a case against the city, the administration decided to take action.
Though Harrison did not say who came up with the idea and who specifically gave the order to do so, it was Communications Coordinator Warren Kagarise who registered the domain names.
“We made a collective administrative decision that we should play defense,” he said. “There was no malice involved. We were just trying to protect the city.”
District General Manager Jay Krauss called Issaquah’s actions “cybersquatting” and said the district’s customer service department has been dealing with questions for months. It was only in the past week that the district decided to investigate.
He particularly disapproved of sammplat.org because of its resemblance to the district’s home site of sammplat.wa.org.
“This is our general business website that the city is trying to hijack,” he said.
Krauss said he was aware of the business tactic to divert a competitor’s web traffic with domains that would derail users unfamiliar with an official URL, but said he was unaware of it in the public sphere.
“This is completely unheard of in government,” he said. “This is disrupting our ability to serve our clients. The real question to ask is who authorized this at the city?”
In response, he sent a letter Sept. 11 to Frisinger and the City Council asking that the sites be removed.
“While the city and the district may have divergent views on issues, the district struggles to understand how any web address containing the phrase ‘sammplat’ has any direct relationship to the city of Issaquah,” the letter reads. “As such, the district requests that city staff be directed to immediately take down the duplicate reserved web domains, and misleading links which redirect district customers from district web content to the city of Issaquah website.”
Responses, reactions and litigation
Frisinger responded with a letter of her own Sept. 12, giving clues about the city’s actions and saying the sites no longer lead to Issaquah’s webpage.
“I am gratified to see that both agencies are serious about minimizing customer confusion,” Frisinger’s letter to Krauss reads. “In light of the district’s misinformation campaign, administration directed a staff member to reserve these URLs. Per your request, you’ll find that both no longer direct users to the city’s website.”
City Council President Fred Butler, who is running for mayor in November, said he had no prior knowledge to the administration’s purchase of the domain names.
“I was not aware that we did it,” he said. “I found out about it after the fact.”
Butler said that in the spring the city staff and the council were inundated with appeals from citizens reacting to the district’s claims of Issaquah polluting groundwater.
“I was frustrated by the large volume of emails that we were getting and the dispersion that was heaped on us with the accusations of destroying the aquifer,” he said. “With that in mind, I can understand. In hindsight, we’re always a little smarter than we were.”
Councilman Joe Forkner, who is running against Butler in November, declined to comment due to his short term on the council. He said he was also unaware of the city’s actions.
Jane Winn, University of Washington’s Charles I. Stone law professor, said she had not seen anything quite like it.
“I was completely dumbfounded by this. What’s the upside to this for Issaquah?” Winn asked. “It is a very, very old problem, but normally it comes up when a consumer’s confused and someone’s using it for profit.”
She pointed to the city’s domain registration as a lightning rod for litigation, backed by protective laws such as the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act.
“Fraud is such a broad statute, the district could easily sue,” Winn said. “As public and private partnerships become more common, they need to think more about classic commercial protection through trademark law.”
Above everything else, she said she found it hard to believe Issaquah would undertake a strategy that carried such high risk.
“It is unlikely that the registration of the domain names went through the normal review process,” she said.
Pattern of behavior
Harrison said he did not find the city’s approach deceptive. Rather, he framed it as leading citizens to correct information regarding the district’s accusations.
“It is real, actual information that is provided there,” he said of the city’s website to which the purchased domains directed people. “We set up the websites and tried to get information out to the people. It was in the heat of the battle and we did it with no malicious intent.”
Harrison said cost to Issaquah taxpayers was minimal. At $10 per domain registration, he pointed to the low price as a stark difference between the two entities’ tactics.
Harrison did not comment about whether there was a long-term solution in the works toward cooperation between the district and the city.
“They’ve showed a pattern of this behavior for years,” Harrison said. “And I don’t know when it will end.”