A colleague at the Weekly World Headquarters had been surfing the Web, looking for the site of presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, when he stumbled upon a site put together by UC Davis students for the 1996 presidential primaries: PEP 96 (moby.ucdavis.edu/
GAWS/pep96). There, he found all sorts of links to Forbes' official 1996 campaign page. But, oddly enough, when he clicked on said links, he wound up staring not at perorations on the flat tax but at naked chicks on a porn site called Cybererotica (www.cybererotica.com).
We at the Weeklyare all for pornography mixed with politics, so Ihastened to the UC Davis site myself and, sure enough, naked chicks. Clicking on the links for Bob Dole (www.dole96.com) and Phil Gramm (www.gramm96.org) netted the same results. My first thought was that someone had deliberately altered the links to sabotage Forbes' campaign. But it didn't make sense that someone would be using a 4-year-old site for an election long-since past to do that. Nor did it make sense that they'd target two non-contenders for the 2000 election.
A quick check with Network Solutions (the company responsible for registering domain names) revealed that the Dole, Gramm and Forbes sites were all registered to the same company: Macros Corporation—based in Siberia. "Whoa," I thought. "Communists!" (I checked to see if Bob Dornan's old presidential site had also been taken over by those sneaky Russians but, alas, the Gods of Irony were against me.)
The really weird thing about the setup was that using the Forbes address didn't always get you to the naked chicks. Typing in "www.forbes96.com" into a new browser window, for example, took you to a site with a list of credit-card processors (www.dmr800.hypermart.net), which is also registered to the boys in Siberia. Clicking on a link to the Forbes site from another site also took you to the DMR800 site. It appeared to be accessible only from the UC Davis site.
And when I called Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, the UC Davis political-science professor responsible for the site, he couldn't access the naked chicks either. While I had him on the phone, we both went to the site and clicked on the same link. I got the porn site. He got the credit-card processors.
"When we hang up, I'm going to report it to the information-technology people on campus, and they're going to look into this," Smith said. "It's sort of ingenious, but it's also daft. Why would anyone in their right mind go to the PEP 96 site? It's four years out of date."
I gave Smith the other links that led to Cybererotica ("All Republicans, hmm?" he noted. "Maybe they're not as daft as I thought."), and he pledged to have the UC Davis computer folks hop right on it. "I leave these sites up because students use them for references," he said. "Obviously, it would be fairly devastating if the Yale Law School admissions committee went to look at a student's work and found advertisements for a pornography site."
I hung up and called Forbes' campaign. After listening to a prerehearsed speech about how much Forbes needed my support by a terribly sincere woman named Delores, I finally got through to Forbes' deputy press secretary, who sort of panicked—but in a very calm and professional way. That was the first the Forbes campaign had heard of it, and they didn't quite know what they were going to do, but I got in touch with their legal counsel, Paul Sullivan, a couple of days later.
"We're in the process of reviewing the matter to see if our registration has lapsed," he said. "If it has not, there's obviously legal action that can be taken. If it has lapsed, there are still alternative trademark or copyright actions that could be brought against the people who are presently using that name." Sullivan said he had encountered a similar situation once before, when someone registered a Jack Kemp-related domain name and used it to link visitors to a porn site.
That kind of tactic isn't unusual in the online porn industry. Many erotica sites capitalize on typos or common mistakes in domain names to attract unwary and possibly unwilling visitors to their site. The most (in)famous is probably www.whitehouse.com, which gets thousands of visitors who really wanted the official White House site, www.whitehouse.gov.
"Unfortunately, it's a fairly common adult-industry practice to register domains of non-adult famous things and put people in adult-content sites," said Jane Duvall, the editor of Jane's Net Sex Guide (www.janesguide.com), a highly respected guide to adult Web sites. "They'll use anything from famous country singers to famous video games to misspellings of Microsoft to get traffic. I personally think it's wrong because kids can be looking for these sites, and in many cases, the ads are so darned explicit they may as well be seeing hardcore. It's highly irresponsible, but as far as I know, not illegal."
In fact, the company that owns the Cybererotica site probably doesn't have anything to do with the redirected links. Cybererotica is owned by Voice Media Inc., which is based in Carson City, Nevada. It runs a number of different programs that pay Webmasters a fee based on how many people link to their adult sites from those Webmasters' own sites. The process is called "click-throughs," and paying a few cents per click-through to the referring site is a time-honored system online.
Jonathan Silverstein, the president of Voice Media, couldn't confirm or deny whether Macros Corp. was a member of their click-through programs. "It's quite possible, but we've signed up more than 20,000 people over the past four years," he said. "Probably the person who owned the URL decided it was going to make them more money to send them to our site. That's not something we advise them to do, and it's not necessarily something we want them to do."
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Silverstein admitted he was somewhat concerned over the possibility of his company's liability should the Forbes campaign decide to do something about the links. "In all honesty, I would be concerned," he said. "I don't like the idea of something like that happening. But there's nothing that we've said or done to facilitate it."
I'd like to tell you what the Siberians had to say about the situation, but unfortunately, they never responded to my e-mail. But they may be in a peck of trouble when Forbes' folks finally put their heads together.
Or perhaps we should look at it this way: here's some Russians, freshly out of decades of communism, using good old-fashioned ingenuity to market their wares and (presumably) earn a quick buck. Forbes should be proud.
Perplex Wyn at email@example.com.