After making billions of dollars by changing the world, tech moguls start dreaming of ruling it. But the political career of former eBay CEO Meg Whitman seems stillborn. Why? She's just not a household name.
Whitman is widely talked about as a Republican candidate for California's governorship in 2010. But she hasn't even been able to win a set of domain names related to a potential campaign, like whitman2010.com. A Southern California man, Thomas Hall, registered that URL and four others. Whitman's legal team has spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to get them back. But an arbitrator at the World Intellectual Property Organization, which rules on such matters, has denied her complaint. Why?
Because Whitman, the ruling argues, hasn't established herself as a brand in the marketplace. This despite appearing on the cover of Fortune and speaking to thousands at eBay seller conferences. Her microfame, in isolated little worlds like Silicon Valley and the online-auction universe, hasn't carried over — at least not enough to impress impartial bureaucrats a world away.
Should Whitman forget about politics, based on this domain-name defeat? Yes, but that's not the only reason. She hopes to trade on her reputation in business, but that's been thoroughly tarnished by eBay's stagnation in the latter years of her reign. Spending $2.6 billion on Skype, and then writing most of it off, was thoroughly boneheaded; meanwhile, she worried about Google but failed to see the threat from a resurgent Amazon.com.
Hey, we hear Yahoo's looking for a CEO! A fixer-upper might be just what Whitman needs, since her good name is in need of repairs, too. Maybe then she'll be able to sell it on a ballot.
Update: Henry Gomez, a retired eBay executive who's now working with Whitman as her personal spokesman, called to say Whitman plans to sue Hall under U.S. cybersquatting laws. (There's no appeal available for the WIPO ruling.) I chatted with Gomez, who seemed to know quite a bit about California politics and electoral rules. How, I asked, did he come across this knowledge? And why is Whitman so concerned about reclaiming these domains, when she's not even offically running for governor? "What can I say?" said Gomez. "We're retired. We're bored."