SACRAMENTO, Calif. — She's regarded as an Internet pioneer, credited with helping turn a Web site used for trading Beanie Babies into a multibillion-dollar company with 15,000 employees.
But Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, has been unable to control her own name online. What began as an irritant has evolved into a distracting legal spat as she explores a run for California governor.
A Santa Monica man has registered at least five Internet domains with Whitman's name, prompting her to sue him in federal court in an attempt to get them back before her anticipated 2010 campaign.
Tom Hall beat Whitman's legal and political experts to the Web sites megwhitmanforgovernor.com, whitmanforgovernor.com, whitman2010.com, meg2010.com and megwhitman2010.com. He registered them in January and March 2008, after news stories reported her as a potential candidate for the Republican nomination.
More recently, Hall registered seven Whitman-related campaign committee names with the California Secretary of State's office.
Attorneys for Whitman lost an arbitration hearing before the World Intellectual Property Association, which ruled in December that Whitman's name is not famous enough to prove she has her own unique brand.
Whitman sued Hall in U.S. District Court in San Jose on Dec. 31, alleging he is violating federal anti-cybersquatting laws. She also claims his actions violate the California Political Cyberfraud Abatement Act, which is intended to protect would-be political candidates from similar tactics.
Hall, a Democrat who described himself as a paid political writer and media consultant, said he registered the domain names for less than $10 apiece.
"All along, I had no idea what I was going to do with these," he said. "I just thought it was kind of funny."
He said Whitman never called him to ask for the Web sites or even offer him money. Instead, he said her Washington, D.C.-based attorneys wrote him a letter calling him a cybersquatter and threatening to sue him for as much as $100,000 if he didn't turn them over.
He noted that he bought the domain names after news articles in which Whitman speculated about her own political future.
"You would think she'd be smart enough to buy the domain before she tells everyone she's thinking about running for governor," he said.
Instead, the former Silicon Valley CEO is likely spending anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 in her legal quest to gain control of the Whitman Web sites, said Frederick Felman, chief marketing officer of MarkMonitor, a San Francisco-based firm that helps companies and people protect their name online.
Hall, 50, said he might have given the domains to Whitman for free if she had asked.
Henry Gomez, a spokesman for Whitman, said her attorneys initially contacted Hall "to try to work something out," but he never responded to e-mail or telephone messages.
"Mr. Hall does not return our calls, so we have not had an opportunity to talk to him," Gomez said. "We don't understand what Mr. Hall's approach is. But if he is open to a discussion, we'd be happy to talk to him."
Whitman, 52, made a fortune as head of eBay from 1998 until early last year, when she left the company to test her affinity for politics, first as finance chairwoman for Mitt Romney and then as a national co-chair of John McCain's presidential campaign.
Her lawsuit claims Hall is a professional cybersquatter who has registered dozens of domain names related to famous people or institutions. He's even registered at least three in case Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, a Democrat, decides to run for governor in 2010.
Hall acknowledged he owns more than 1,000 domain names but said he mostly registers them for fun, as a sort of Internet collector. He said he makes very little money from them and cannot afford to hire an attorney.
Hall also registered the names of seven committees with the California Secretary of State's office, allowing him to legally run a political campaign and accept donations. He hopes his campaign — either an opposition campaign or a parody, he hasn't decided — will prevent Whitman's attorneys from harassing him.
"I hope she fails miserably in her race for governor, and if this is how she treats people — hiring law firms outside of the state of California and then running for governor — it's insane," Hall said.
The body that oversees California's campaign finance regulations, the Fair Political Practices Commission, is concerned about Hall's committee registrations. Executive Director Roman Porter said the committee is investigating whether he violated any campaign finance laws.
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