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What's in a name? On the Internet, it might surprise you

Melissa Hantman was given the middle name Fox after her mother’s maiden name. So when her computer savvy boyfriend urged her to get an e-mail address in 1995 she selected foxmelissa@aol.com.

When Hantman started e-mailing prospective employers in the summer of 2001, she wondered why she wasn’t getting any responses. In hindsight, she believes her innocently chosen e-mail address was the problem. “I wasn’t thinking when I was applying for jobs that my e-mail address sounded like porno-spam,” she said.

Hantman kept using her foxmelissa@aol.com address until 2004, when her uncle got an e-mail message from a lilfoxymelissa. Thinking his niece had sent him a note, he opened the message and found it full of explicit pictures of naked women--none of them his niece.

“It was really embarrassing,” Hantman recalled. “After a confused phone call from him to me," she set up a new e-mail address without her provocative middle name.

Mistaken identities and mixed-up names are nothing new. But with the growth of the Internet it’s easier to find people who share the same name and confuse them. People often Google their next-door neighbors, their favorite celebrities and themselves online. Some people who indulge in vanity searching find not only their own information, but also that of an adult entertainer.

“People have an unrealistic view that their name is their own,” said Milton L. Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and the director of the graduate program in telecommunications and network management. “The Internet has conflated the multiple uses and collapsed them into one space.”

A U.S. government study in 2006 found that 1 percent of Web sites indexed by Google and Microsoft–-over 250 million sites--carry sexually explicit material. With such a large volume of sexual material it’s not unusual for searches of personal names, e-mail addresses and Web sites to turn up XXX-rated movies, suggestive pictures and other pornographic fodder.

“I think that is a valid concern,” said Jean Cummings, a personal branding expert and resume consultant in Concord, Mass., when told of a job searcher who shared a name with an actress in a fetish film. “You will be Googled, and it’s important that you yourself comes across, and have all the more Web presence.

The worry of online confusion has even affected celebrities. In December the singer Mariah Carey appealed an application by Mary Carey, the adult entertainer, stripper and 2006 California gubernatorial candidate, to trademark her name. Mariah Carey, who had previously trademarked her name, contended in the appeal that she had “invested a substantial amount of time, effort and money in promoting the Mariah Carey.”

“Based on the similarities of the parties’ marks and the similarities and related nature of the goods described in the parties’ application and registrations, the public is likely to mistakenly associate the goods offered” by Mary Carey, whose real name is Mary E. Cook, with those from Mariah Carey, the appeal stated. Mariah Carey won the suit, and Mary Carey can no longer be credited as such on DVDs, Web sites and in movies.

Cummings said the first step in protecting a name online is to buy and register a domain name. If the domain name is already taken, she suggested starting a blog. “Basic blogging attracts more search engine attention,” she said, so the blog will appear higher up in the search results than any compromising MySpace.com pages that an employer might find in poor taste.

Robert Walton, 30, was bored at work when he decided to search his name on the Internet Movie Database, imdb.com, a few years ago. Walton, a reporter for Gas and Utility Week, a newsletter in Washington, “thought it was hilarious” when his name appeared on the cast list for a video that had a sexually explicit title.

“I quickly e-mailed the link to as many people as possible,” he said.

The adult entertainer was the third reference to a Robert Walton that he had found online. The first was a character from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” and the other was an artist in Colorado who owns the domain name RobertWalton.com. “That is my biggest name issue,” Walton said of the Web site that bears his name but not his work. “I don’t even like his art.”

“Fifty years ago or even four years ago, people didn’t have this problem,” Mueller said. People were identified by their position within a geographical community, not an online one.

As the Internet expanded globally, the World Intellectual Property Association in Geneva started addressing issues with domain names and the use of personal names on the Internet. In a 2001 report, the association decided there was no precedent for the protection of individual names and refused to establish a new one. But it maintained that a personal name that has been trademarked, like Mariah Carey’s, has a higher level of protection.

Scott Austin, an assistant managing editor at Dow Jones, had just finished writing a paper at 5:30 a.m. in the University of Texas library when he decided to check to see if he could buy his domain name.

"It was the mid-90s and everyone was buying up domain names then," he recalled. "And immediately there's this guy on the Web site with his thing sticking out. And the pop-up ads started coming up." Austin turned off the monitor and shut off the computer.

Several years later, his girlfriend was e-mailing her father about the new guy she was dating. "Her dad, who's a computer guy, did a quick search on Scott Austin," Austin said. "Joking, he sent an e-mail back to her with scottaustin.com saying, 'I hope it's not this guy.'"

Austin feels that people are savvy enough not to confuse him with the adult entertainer. As someone involved in hiring, though, he admits that Internet identity confusion could be a problem. "I do a search and you're never 100 percent sure that you're getting the right person," he said.

Three years ago, Austin noticed that scottaustin.com changed from a gay porn site to one for music production. It changed back to the former site a year later. Since then, he has put his name on the waiting list to buy the domain name in the hope that it will be available.

"I'm waiting for that day," Austin said.

E-mail: aa2524@columbia.edu