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Online identity and brand trust

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 18 – The Internet makes friends feel so close yet so far away. An email invokes memory and feelings held of the sender.

Connected users build trust relationships on an assumed authenticity. Online identity thieves and fraudsters violate this trust with severe legal, social and commercial consequences.

Following a precedent set by an Australian Court that allowed serving of court orders via the popular online hangout, the New Zealand High Court endorsed the process last March. If you are trying to evade a court order then delete your Facebook account!

If your account were hacked, thus have no control over it or if another person impersonated your online profile, chances are that the courts would sentence you in absentia. Online identity theft would rob of your legal right to be heard.

A report dubbed 2009 Identity Fraud Survey Report:Consumer Version by Javelin Strategy & Research reveals that many thefts occur through more traditional methods, such as a stolen wallet or “friendly fraud,” in which the criminal may be someone close to you.

Among common methods listed include; transactions, such as a purchases made in-store, on phone or online, information stolen from your own home, including by friends, relatives, and in-home employees, criminal spying while entering a PIN or using payment cards at ATMs or a store (shoulder surfing).
 Other means include data breaches at organisations or business with your personal information that experienced widespread exposure of customer and/or employee records. These include hospitals, school, other business and private security firms.

The more common fraud methods are emails, calls, or text messages, from somebody pretending to be a bank or other trusted source tricking you into providing private information. Others are hacking, viruses, and malware/spyware on a computer, retrieving unshredded information from a trash can, a method known as “dumpster diving” among other new and different methods that criminals are continually developing.
Familiar companies’ websites resonate known brands and services, those of government agencies imply authority while online views conjure ‘real life’ blogger or personality.

Disputes arise from stolen ‘online brands’, for example, on internet domain names registration and plagiarism – without acknowledging sources – even where content is published under creative commons licenses.

“Cybersquatting" individuals register the dot-com version of a well-known name, brand, concept, or company sometimes leads to profit for the cybersquatter, or some to fine humour.

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Notable disputes include a January 5, 2009 ruling by United Nations World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) where Carlos Slim Hélu, Mexican telecommunications tycoon and the world’s second-richest man got control for free of a Web address in his name ( An Indonesian cybersquat had tried to sell him for Sh4.4 billion (US $55 million).

Considering that Ahmad Rusli of Trisakti University, had threatened to direct traffic to pornographic websites unless he was paid the demanded sums of money, WIPO ruled that he had registered the domain “in bad faith” thus awarding it for free to Hélu.

Government-like domain names have similarly been registered but they appear to take a different path.

An adult-entertainment site registered which has since been turned into some kind of political news site. And it is unclear which direction – currently registered to OS Domain Holdings V, LLC of Los Angeles, California, 90071, US will take.

While the Mexican billionaire could afford taking his case to WIPO, not every disputant is able to emulate. Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has a Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy.

Under the policy, most types of trademark-based domain-name disputes are resolved by agreement, court action, or arbitration before a registrar cancels, suspends, or transfers a domain name. Disputes alleged to arise from abusive registrations of domain names (for example, cybersquatting) may be addressed by expedited administrative proceedings that the holder of trademark rights initiates by filing a complaint with an approved dispute-resolution service provider.

Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act, 2008 stipulates penalties on access to computer systems with intent to committing offences as well as unauthorised access and interception of computer services. Electronic evidence is admissible in court thus users may find browser “File-Save-As” options useful for online evidence gathering.

Lawyers ought to be quicker at interpreting and integrating this new communications law into their practice.

The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) invited members to apply for membership of proposed Committee on ICT in June, 2007. Normally, LSK pro-actively contributes to the law making process thus the urgent need for this committee to be operational. A lack of legally-binding technology dispute resolution professionals makes the full implementation of the new communication law a frustratingly slow process.

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Meanwhile, Internet users may consider front-line layer of protection, trust and confidence boosting tools such “Web of Trust” that warn about risky websites that try to scam visitors, deliver malware or send spam and of imposters’ websites.

(Alex Gakuru is an ICT expert and Chairman, ICT Consumers Association of Kenya. This article was influenced by a question he was asked at ‘The Media Kenya Needs’ conference; “Can you help us with tools to discern trustworthiness over the internet?”)

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