Imagine that your name is Harman Bajwa. Your Facebook profile is located at the vanity URL facebook.com/harman. You log into your Facebook account one day only to receive a message indicating that your vanity URL has been "removed for violating Facebook’s policies". This message implies that your vanity URL is unrelated to who you are, and that you've been impersonating someone or something.
That's exactly what happened to Facebook user Harman Bajwa. What gave? A message from a new Facebook 'friend' who works for agency giant Carat provided a hint.
That message read:
Thanks for accepting my friend request on Facebook.
I’m the emerging media strategist at Carat in Boston and I work on the Harman International account. We’re launching our first initiative in partnership with the GRAMMYS on Monday. Harman International is looking to obtain the vanity url facebook.com/harman for their Facebook fan page.
We are currently working with Facebook to reclaim (http://www.facebook.com/help/?page=896#/help.php?page=899) the username, but I wanted to explore opportunities to work with you to acquire the name. In the past, we have offered product in exchange for social domain names. One case in mind was for the new movie Avatar , we were able to give promotional items to the owner of twitter.com/avtr for Coke Zero.
Do you have time to connect today to discuss this opportunity in more detail?
Apparently the "emerging media strategist" at Carat who sent this is used to getting his way. Apparently, a little free product is supposed to be enough to satisfy anyone who happens to have something Carat wants, such as a username or vanity URL. This type of corporate entitlement is seen a lot in the domain name world where the UDRP process is abused with mixed success by companies looking to acquire domains to which they have no legitimate claim.
As vanity URLs and usernames on popular services like Facebook and Twitter grow in importance, that same sort of abuse is inevitable. Unfortunately, this abuse will often be more visible and disappointing given that these vanity URLs and usernames usually belong to real people and their online profiles. Fortunately, this abuse doesn't need to happen.
In this case, instead of trying to take advantage of the situation, Carat could have advised its client that facebook.com/harman was being used by somebody named Harman. At that point, Harman International could have decided to make the real Harman a legitimate, good faith offer for his vanity URL. Or Carat could have opted to use facebook.com/harmaninternational, which appears to be available. Too long? Why not set up harman.com/facebook as a redirect? It doesn't take too much creativity to work around the issue, and the obvious solutions don't require rocket science.
In the end of course, a Carat employee ended up acting like a jerk as he rushed to secure facebook.com/harman little more than a week and a half before a client initiative. It doesn't take a whole lot of moral common sense to realize that even though you might be able to use your position as a deep-pocketed corporation to take something away from someone else, you probably shouldn't. And it doesn't take a whole lot of business sense to realize that these sorts of matters shouldn't be left to the last minute.
Fortunately, Facebook fessed up to its flub and gave Harman Bajwa back his vanity URL, no doubt thanks in part to the exposure the incident received on TechCrunch. But this incident should serve as a warning to agencies and others who represent brand clients in some capacity.
Because of the nature of the UDRP process, disputes over domain names are generally handled by corporate counsel (in-house or outside). That doesn't make trying to snatch a domain name away from somebody on questionable grounds any better, but when corporate counsel pursues a particular action, you can be pretty sure that the company's will is being done. When it comes to vanity URLs and usernames, however, anybody can fill out a form and claim to be a brand representative. That means that a low-level agency employee working on a corporate marketing campaign could conceivably have a vanity URL transferred away from a legitimate user without any approval from the client, legal counsel or a higher-up.
Here, I suspect that Harman International wasn't involved in the decision to try to "reclaim" facebook.com/harman, and it's entirely possible that this decision wasn't even approved by anyone with real authority at Carat. The problem with that, of course, is that the action of a single agency employee created a PR mishap that I'm sure executives at Harman International and Carat could have done without. While the situation was rectified promptly by Facebook, it's clear from this employee's actions that vanity URL and username matters are regularly being handled inappropriately by the wrong people.
The lesson: agencies (and those who represent brands in any capacity) need to be on their best behavior when taking action on behalf of their clients. Their actions reflect on those they represent, which is why clients should be involved in decisions related to vanity URLs and usernames. Additionally, as with domain name disputes, it may be wise to have corporate counsel take the lead when a decision is made to try to "reclaim" anything on the grounds that someone else doesn't have the right to it.