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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:

Hi Harman,

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?

Classy, no?

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.

Patricio Robles

Published 25 January, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2380 more posts from this author

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Cathlyn Driscoll

This type of issue has been around since the beginning of the internet (domaing squatting) , and as social media sites expand, the problem will continue to exist. The biggest problem is for legitimate companies need to get their act together and establish their corporate identities with media outlets immediately upon spotting trends. This means having someone in their marketing department dedicated to protecting their corporate image and brand, so that such issues don't keep cropping up. However, that said, there will always be those clever ones out there looking to make a buck from firms who are slow out of the gate...

over 6 years ago

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Akash Sharma

You have taken a great example of this mistake which would start happening more now as more and more small and big brands engage with social media and PR agencies.There are two sides of this coin - Firstly as its important to give leverage to our employees to go ahead with these socail media campaign like this, the second side when you are trying to set a clients perception in consumer's mind its very important to have a soul which the brand represents.

So the outcome is that basically every effort should be monitored seriously before going out on the web. 

over 6 years ago

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John S Cothill

What Carat wants, Carat gets!

Like you said - probably an over-enthusiastic marketeer wanting the win at all costs. I think this is a lesson for all brands/agencies to have clear policies in place... but saying that, you can't be good old fashioned moral common sense!

over 6 years ago

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Meredith

This sentence "Do you have time to connect today to discuss this opportunity in more detail?" is particularly vomit inducing. Does this guy think he's emailing an eletrical appliance?

over 6 years ago

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selina howells

We need to know if this has happened to others and what happens when Techcrunch does not get involved to understand what this story means.

Techcrunch also reported that Harman set up a support group on Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg joined it, according to Techcrunh. I did find myself thinking as I read that, I bet Zuckerberg has never heard of Harman and knows nothing about joining his support group. That'll be down to some PR person.

over 6 years ago

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Terry Benge

We have come some way to dealing with this issue.
We have 'tags' that link to upto 6 sites.
You retain the TAG regardless of what happens with Facebook etc. If you get Facebook rejecting your url, just change it to your new one and set that up in ihop.to instead.

I'd be interested to hear if you think this some someway to dealing with this issue.

Agencies can then just promote one 'TAG'

Terry

about 5 years ago

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