Digital Property Ownership

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Your domain name and social media profiles/channels identify your brand on Internet. Like any real estate they are important business assets and should be controlled by someone in authority within your business. This is doubly important if you ever want to sell your business. Whoever controls your domain and social media channels can shut down your website or lose it for you altogether.

Have you granted admin (or worst owner) credentials of your digital estates to your staff? What might happen if you sack that person? If they take offence to being fired and you have not revoked their online privileges, they could change important settings so much that you are left with no website or email. Worse still they could even remove you as the owner! Imagine the negative effect to your business if the employee starts to bad-mouth you on social media to all your followers…

What do you need to know to protect yourself and your business?

Domain Names

The Domain Name System, or DNS, is like a telephone directory, linking your domain name to the physical address of your web site. You don’t own the domain, it’s more like a lease. So long as you continue to pay the annual subscription, you keep the name and its place in the DNS directory. If payments lapse, you lose both and someone else can take it over. Microsoft made the headlines when they forgot to renew their domain name “passport.com” and if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003 again Microsoft forgot to renew another important domain, this time it was “hotmail.co.uk”!

Often, the “Registrant” is the person who registered the domain in the first place. It could be an employee, someone who has since left the company, or your first website designer.

Different organisations across the world control and manage the domain name directory. An organisation called Nominet controls domains ending with .uk, including .co.uk, .org.uk and so on. The domains .com, .net and .org are managed by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. For a more complete explanation, search Wikipedia.

Do you know who owns what?

  1. Not only the domain name but do you know who manages your website and social media accounts?
  2. Who is your email provider?
  3. Do you have a list of all the digital stuff you have collected through the years?
  4. Do you know the login information for each site or control panel?

Just because you pay the domain name bill doesn’t mean you own it.

That’s right. You may not be the legal owner. Whoever is the legal owner of your domain name, that person has total control over it – including what website it points to, which domain-name registrar maintains it, who can change information about your domain name account, who administers it, and of course who is able to sell it.

The legal owner of a domain name is the person and/or organization listed as the domain’s registrant or owner contact. Domains typically have four contacts: registrant/owner, admin, technical, and billing. These can be the same person or different people.

The people listed below are not the owner of the domain:

  1. The person or people whose names are the admin, technical, or billing contacts for the domain.
  2. The web hosting provider you use to host your website.
  3. The person who paid for the domain.
  4. The person you hired to build and/or manage your website for you.
  5. A person who owns or has access to the account in which the domain resides.

You should know who your domain is registered with and the username and password for your domain name registration account. You should be very careful about giving this information to anyone since you are potentially handing over the legal rights to your domain name.

If a domain is registered by an ex-employee

The most common issue we see is when employees register domains for an organisation, then later leave that employment. The domain often ends up marooned in an account that no one has access to. If the account login email no longer exists, no one can receive the account password reset emails, so no one will be alerted to any issues with domain renewal until the website or email stops working.

Worst-case scenario: if the employee who registered the domain does so entirely in their name (where the organisation isn’t listed on the account contact details, payment details, or domain registration details), there is absolutely no proof (aside from, perhaps the domain name itself) that the organisation has any right to it.

These situations are tricky and require a lot of authentication and proof before you can regain access to the domain. If someone in your organisation has been tasked with registering a domain name for the company, or a department, or a specific project, or whatever, this is what you should do:

  1. ensure that the organisation’s name and contact information are on the account and on the domain registrant contacts, especially the registrant/owner one.
  2. ensure that the email address to access the account is one accessible by more than one person, e.g. it_admin@mycompany.com, rather than jsmith@mycompany.com.
  3. make a list of organisational assets that include domain names and their access details.

Then, if that employee leaves you won’t be left in the dark or given a rude awakening when it finally dawns on you that there’s a problem as the website went down and email stopped working… because the domain renewal couldn’t be billed to a deactivated credit card and expired months ago.

Social Media Business Pages

Again, the most common issue is when employees create the business page/profile for an organisation, then leave. The page/profile ends up marooned in an account no one has access to, where the account login email no longer exists, no one receives the account password reset emails or is alerted to any issues. You’ve lost control.

If you grant admin access to an employee to look after the day-to-day running of the profile it means they can remove you as the admin and take control of the page/profile! You should never grant admin access to anyone who does not have executive powers within your organisation. For Non-Executives you should always use the editor, collaborator, author or similar option.

The bottom line

Digital property is something we need to get used to in this increasingly technical world. Items like domain names are often very closely tied to our identities, interests, families, income, and other parts of life.

We need to think of them as being as important as the physical items in our homes, or our financial assets, and plan to get organized accordingly. It’s really just a matter of being aware upon setup, and occasionally ensuring that things are up to date.

Perhaps an annual digital check-up around the New Year is what is required?

Future you, and your descendants, will thank you.