Activist accuses Kennecott’s parent company of cybersquatting to ‘silence’ Utah Moms for Clean Air

(Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo) Cherise Udell of Utah Moms for Clean Air in 2013. Udell took to Facebook over the weekend accused officials with the parent company of Rio Tinto Kennecott in South Jordan of buying the group's domain in an attempt to silence them.

Moms pushing to improve Utah’s air quality on behalf of their children had a plan: Temporarily take down their advocacy website at UtahMomsforCleanAir.org, redesign it and relaunch in March.

But instead, someone slipped in while the site’s domain name had expired and bought it. And it’s not clear who, but one of the group’s founders has a prime suspect.

Air-quality activist Cherise Udell took to Facebook over the weekend, accusing officials with the parent company of Rio Tinto Kennecott in South Jordan of buying the domain in an attempt to silence the group.

The global company Rio Tinto and its Utah mining, smelting and refining subsidiary have periodically drawn criticism from Utah Moms for Clean Air over its air emissions and their role in the state’s health-threatening winter inversions.

“Rio Tinto scooped it up to silence us,” Udell wrote Saturday in comments on social media about the web domain. “This was a mean and petty thing for them to do. They are a huge billion dollar international company and they want to silence the voice of some moms in Utah trying to protect their kids.”

Reached Tuesday, the activist said she was convinced the domain was taken “with malintention.” Attempts to load the utahmomsforcleanair.org page yielded a “Nothing Found” message early Monday, along with an unrelated ad for house cleaning, hosted by the blogging service WordPress.

Kyle Bennett, spokesman for Rio Tinto Kennecott, said Monday the company had reached out to Udell and is investigating the matter. He said the mining firm’s global digital communications team, which oversees the company’s web presence, has confirmed it did not buy the domain.

“We cannot find any record or transaction that it was purchased within Rio Tinto,” Bennett said, adding that company officials were continuing to look into Udell’s claims. If Rio Tinto discovers it had purchased the web domain, Bennett said it will transfer control back to Utah Moms for Clean Air.

“This isn’t the way we operate,” he said of cybersquatting.

Udell labeled her original post with the hashtag "#abuseofpower” and sought to draw the attention of Gov. Gary Herbert, other state politicians, clean-air advocates and the news media.

“I will ask nicely for them to give back what is rightfully ours,” Udell wrote about Rio Tinto, “and then if need be I will publicly shame them.”

She blamed herself for letting the domain accidentally expire while the website was being revamped. “That part is my bad," Udell wrote, "and I own it.”

Terry Marasco, a board member with Utah Moms for Clean Air, said he also had contacted several officials at Rio Tinto Kennecott over the matter and added that from his perspective, it was unclear who has seized the domain.

"We still don't know yet," Marasco said.

Nor was the link between Rio Tinto and the domain clear based on online web registry information. Registration records listed for UtahMomsforCleanAir.org only reveal the new purchaser is based in “Greater London” in Great Britain — home of Rio Tinto’s worldwide headquarters, along with Melbourne, Australia.

Udell claimed in one of her posts over the weekend that Rio Tinto’s purchase of the domain was confirmed by an employee of GoDaddy, the domain registrar and web hosting company. Attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to verify that with GoDaddy were unsuccessful.

But an official with the Arizona-based web company noted that if whoever registered the expired domain is from a European country, their contact information would by law be automatically protected under European Union rules on privacy, known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

"There is no way for the former registrant to know who is the current registrant of the domain name because they are protected with GDPR law," a technical support official with GoDaddy wrote Monday to The Tribune.

Even GoDaddy employees are unable to check contact information on domain names with protected registrations, he said.

In her original post, which called out Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and other top company officials, Udell said her accusations of cybersquatting by Rio Tinto were fueled in part by an encounter she had in London with the company’s top security officer, whom Udell said referred to Utah Moms for Clean Air as “a thorn in their side.”

“This action to duct tape our voices proves Rio Tinto and Rio Tinto Kennecott DO NOT CARE ABOUT OUR AIR,” wrote Udell, who helped found Utah Moms for Clean Air more than a decade ago. “Do not deny this Rio Tinto.”

She later posted the company had told her they “would make a good faith effort to dig deeper. So the saga continues.”

Udell wrote, “I just want our website back."