Comcast did not respond to my request for comment. When I visited its Web site chat interface as a potential customer, however, and asked a representative about creating an account with the name "Lipshitz," the rep told me that the system would block it: "I am sorry, the same with other providers, username with profanity words are not allowed by the server."
As for Gmail, a spokesperson responding by sending me two basic excerpts from the service's online FAQ -- one explaining that a username may be unavailable to "prevent spam or abuse," and another explaining why all usernames must contain at least six letters. When I tried to obtain specifics about the policy and to ask about the best course of action for people with blocked names, the spokesperson stopped responding to my calls and e-mail messages.
AT&T did not respond to multiple requests for information. I attempted to log on to its online chat interface as a customer, but its representatives told me I would have to complete the sign-up process before I could see whether any specific username would be accepted.
George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words
For what it's worth, the Webmail providers are split when it comes to blocking the "seven dirty words" made famous by George Carlin's comedy routine. (Don't click through to this list if you are easily offended. In fact, if you're easily offended, why are you reading this story at all?)
Of the seven that Carlin identifies, we've already covered the one that cost Dr. Libshitz so much grief. Four of the other entries -- the two most obviously vulgar four-letter words and the two multisyllable selections -- are banned at AOL Mail, Google, Hotmail, and Yahoo. The two remaining words on Carlin's list, curiously enough, are permitted at all four Webmail providers.
Your Name, Not Your Right
So where does all of this leave the Libshitzes and Cockburns -- not to mention the Heinie Manushes -- of the world? Nine times out of ten, they may just be out of luck.
"As a basic tenet of American law, you do not necessarily have a right to use your name," explains Theodore Claypoole, an attorney specializing in intellectual property and consumer data treatment with the law firm of Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge, and Rice.