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Sex Sites Capitalizing on Misleading URLs

March 02, 1998|LAWRENCE MAGID

Last week I was helping my 11-year-old son with a geology assignment and decided to visit the U.S. Geological Survey's Web site. But instead of typing the USGS' correct Web address, I accidentally mistyped and instead took us to a site with the message, "Enter Now: 1 Million Cash Giveaway!!"

A few seconds later, without even clicking on the link, we were automatically switched to an adult Web page with sexually explicit images.

There was a warning that "the following lists contain domain names that some may find to be offensive. If you are offended by such material, or if you are under 18 years old, you have the option not to view by going back." But there were explicit images on that page as well as links to other sites with sample images that you could view without entering a credit card number or offering any proof of age.

I'm not complaining about adult Web sites. I strongly support free speech and expression and the rights of consenting adults and was on record opposing the Communications Decency Act and other federal and state laws that would restrict free expression, including the right to display sexually oriented material. But there is a difference between putting up an adult Web site and deliberately naming the site in a way that encourages people--including children--to get there by accident.

This isn't the first time my son and I stumbled into an adult site. We had the same experience when I accidentally mistyped when attempting to visit http://www.whitehouse.gov. In fact, there is a large number of adult sites that have apparently been named in such a way as to get people to visit them by mistake. Netscape's Web site is one of the most popular on the Internet but one typo and you'll wind up browsing something other than a Web browser.

The same can be true if you make a typing error while trying to visit Web sites of Compaq Computer, Intel and many other companies. Even the Los Angeles Times and New York Times have been dragged into the act. Leave out one letter in latimes.com or nytimes.com, and you will encounter material that would never make the printed edition or Web pages of either paper.

WebCo International, which publishes the WebChaperone filtering software, has posted a listing of "stealth sites" at http://www.webchaperone.com/stealthlist.html. The company's product, along with several other filtering programs, is designed to enable parents to block these and other X-rated sites. WebChaperone, according to WebCo Chief Executive Adrian Russell-Falla, uses artificial intelligence rather than a "black list" to filter sites with objectionable material. I operate a Web site, http://www.safekids.com, with information about filtering programs and other tools parents can use to protect their kids in cyberspace.

One of the sites on WebCo's list is "disnie.com" which, when I visited it about two weeks ago, contained links to pages with adult material. The site, however, is no longer on the Internet. The site is registered to Conru Interactive of Mountain View, Calif. Andrew Conru, who is listed as the administrative contact for the site, said he voluntarily decided to remove the site even though Walt Disney Co. hadn't contacted him.

"We realized that it was not appropriate," he said. "Even if we wanted to do that, the demographics would not be the right ones."

Conru said there was no adult material on the site itself, although he acknowledged that there were links to adult sites.

Adult sites don't generally list phone numbers or the names of representatives, but you can sometimes find out who operates a Web site by checking the "who is" database at http://www.internic.net

Through Internic, I was able to get the name and phone number of Daniel Yomtobian, the administrative contact for the "usgs" site that my son and I accidentally stumbled upon. When asked about the possibility of any confusion between his site and that of the U.S. Geological Survey, he said, "I have no comment, my friend."

Internic revealed that the stealth "Los Angeles Times" Web site was registered to Saeid Yomtobian at the same address in Sherman Oaks listed for Daniel Yomtobian. When asked to comment on why he chose that URL, he responded: "Are you going to pay me money for this interview?" When I said no, he responded, "I don't have time for you."

The same individual had operated another stealth Web site called "latime.com" but took it offline in response to a letter from The Times' outside counsel, according to Karlene Goller of The Times' legal department. Yomtobian has yet to comply with The Times' demand that he cancel his Internic registration for the domain and confirm that he cease and desist using "the confusingly similar domain name," Goller said.

Goller said The Times will file suit against Saeid Yomtobian today in federal court in Los Angeles alleging, among other things, trademark infringement and unfair business practices.

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