Days before Paul launched his bid for president, his campaign shelled out more than $100,000 to a domain-buying firm to purchase a “domain name.” Soon after, RandPaul.com, which had previously been a pro-Paul site run by his fans, emerged as the official portal for the campaign.
Federal campaign records show Paul used his Senate reelection committee to pay $100,980 to Escrow.com, a domain service, on March 27 for what is described as a “domain name.” Previously, Paul’s political homepage was RandPaul2016.com, an address that now automatically redirects to his RandPaul.com page.
The payment is an enormous sum even in the murky world of political cybersquatting. “Holy crap,” a top Republican digital strategist said when informed of the price. “That’s a ton.”
Patrick Ruffini, a veteran GOP digital strategist, said that he had never heard of a campaign paying so much for a URL, though he was not shocked. “It’s very much a seller’s market,” Ruffini said, adding that owning a candidate’s “FirstnameLastname.com” was the gold standard in the digital world. “I would argue that almost nothing else matters.”
Under its prior ownership, RandPaul.com had been a bare-bones fan site, calling the Kentucky senator “the statesman we need in these difficult times,” according to a 2013 version of the site captured by Archive.org. It was an independent page as of late March 2015, when the The Des Moines Register published a story about presidential-domain squatters and included the site. In October, The Hill reported RandPaul.com was available on an Internet auction site for $125,000.
But by April 7, the day Paul announced he was running for president, it had become his official homepage.
A phone message left for Brandon Abbey, president of Escrow.com, about the purchase was not returned. Paul’s campaign team also did not respond to requests for comment.
Vincent Harris, Paul’s chief digital strategist, has been in favor of paying up for top domains in the past. “In my experience, it’s much better just to buy the domain names, even though you’re kind of giving these people a leg up,” Harris told Politico in 2012, which reported that Harris had helped Jon Huntsman buy JonHuntsman.com in 2011. “It’s a quicker, speedier process to get it all done.”
The price, in terms of bad publicity, for not securing a top-level domain can be steep, as some of Paul’s 2016 rivals have learned the hard way.
The owner of CarlyFiorina.org was even more creative: mocking Carly Fiorina with 30,000 frowning-face emoticons—one each for all the layoffs at Hewlett-Packard under her tenure. “You can’t buy every domain name,” Fiorina lamented. “Maybe we should have, but we didn’t.” She already owned CarlyFiorina.com.
“Given the scrutiny for the last few announcements, it seems like the campaigns themselves are in a rough spot,” Ruffini said.
It was not immediately clear who scored the big payday from Paul. RandPaul.com appears to have been first registered back in April 2006. Internet registration records show that it was registered to Fabulous.com, another domain-registration site, which can keep the actual owners of domains anonymous.
Matthew T. Sanderson, who is general counsel for the Paul campaign, has been a vocal critic of cybersquatting. He served as counsel to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and, afterward, wrote a piece in Election Law Journal decrying the practice.
“They do it for profit,” Sanderson wrote of cybersquatters in 2009. “They do it for spite. They do it to broadcast criticisms. They do it out of egotism or to indulge their idea of fun.” Reached via phone, Sanderson referred all questions to the Paul press team.
The Paul family itself is no stranger to domain-name squabbles.
Ron Paul, the three-time presidential candidate and Rand’s father, never controlled RonPaul.com and RonPaul.org, and he failed to secure them, even after bringing a 2013 complaint before the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations that handles domain-name disputes. The sites were operated by a group of Paul supporters. “Now that your campaigns are over and you no longer need us, you want to take it all away—and send us off to a U.N. tribunal?” they complained. WIPO ultimately ruled in their favor and against the elder Paul.
Cybersquatting is relatively common, with speculators often trying to strike it rich by buying the URLs of potential future presidential candidates, the years they’ll run, and potential running mates. One notable cybersquatter, Michael Deutsch, is a C-SPAN junkie who tries to trade domains for access to candidates and their campaigns. Among his many properties: Jeb2016.com.
Other would-be 2016 candidates have potential domain-squatting troubles looming ahead. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for instance, doesn’t own ChrisChristie.com. (A Milwaukee computer-programmer of the same name does.) The owners of JebBushforPresident.com? A gay couple in Oregon.