On a dusty strip of auto body shops and plumbing suppliers in the San Fernando Valley is a little-known company that occupies one of the most embattled, contradictory and profitable corners of the Internet.
For thousands of online porn sites, Cybernet Ventures Inc. is a meal ticket, a source of millions of dollars in revenue. For the government, it is a potential solution to the Internet pornography problem. And for just about everybody else, it is the latest example of how difficult it can be to apply a technological solution to a social problem.
Over the last three years, privately held Cybernet has become the leading age verification system on the Internet. Through its Adult Check system, it uses credit card accounts to guard about 50,000 adult Web sites, purportedly keeping children out while letting more than 3 million paying customers in.
How to shield children from pornography has long been one of the thorniest issues on the Net. The main question is whether the onus should be on parents, as civil liberties groups believe, or on the sites themselves, as Congress proposes.
Cybernet was born during the federal government's first attempt to outlaw pornography online, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. And now the company has emerged as a central player in the government's second attack on online smut.
The Child Online Protection Act, signed by President Clinton last year and now being challenged in a federal court in Philadelphia, is practically an endorsement of Adult Check. The law would require all commercial Web sites--even those not in the pornography business--to use Adult Check or another service like it to protect children from material deemed "harmful to minors."
Justice Department attorneys have gone so far as to call Laith Alsarraf, the 29-year-old founder and chief executive of Cybernet, as one of the lead witnesses in their efforts to uphold the law.
Alsarraf obliged, partly because he says he believes his system works, but perhaps also because his company stands to reap a windfall if the Child Online Protection Act is upheld.
"If this law were to go through, I think it's pretty obvious it would help our business," said Alsarraf, a UCLA dropout who scrapped his struggling Web site design business to launch Cybernet. "I don't know if the Child Online Protection Act is the right thing or the wrong thing. But something needs to be done, and we provide a valuable service."
Critics Note Contradictions
To the company's critics, however, Cybernet contributes more to the problem than the solution.
"The government wants to shut down porn on the Net," said Ann Beeson, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney leading the effort to overturn the law on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional restraint on free speech. "And yet their main witness is this guy who makes his money urging more and more people to access porn on the Net."
Justice Department officials said Alsarraf was called as a witness because of his expertise.
Dozens of companies are in the age verification business, but Adult Check is by far the largest. The company sells passwords that enable users to gain entry into any adult site that uses the Adult Check system. A one-year password sells for $19.95, two years for $29.95, and a lifetime membership is $76.95.
To obtain a password, a person needs to fill out an online application that asks for a name and address. A valid credit card number is all it takes for an applicant to show that he or she is an adult.
Critics say that is a dubious means of checking someone's age. Children can swipe their parents' cards, they say, or even find Adult Check passwords illegally posted on "free password" sites proliferating on the Net.
Alsarraf acknowledges that the system is imperfect but says watchful parents will spot the charge on their monthly bill. The company has software to root out invalid credit card accounts and bootlegged passwords, he said, but declined to elaborate, saying the systems are proprietary.
In any case, Adult Check is good enough as far as the government is concerned because if the Child Protection Act is upheld, it would only require that firms make a good-faith effort to check the ages of users.
For now, Web sites are under no legal obligation to verify users' ages. Thousands do because it's how they get paid.
As part of an elaborate sales commission system, Adult Check passes along about half the revenue it collects to Web sites according to how many new members they refer. Every two weeks, the company sends thousands of checks to Web sites across the country, and even some overseas.
Becoming an affiliate costs nothing. Web site operators simply fill out an online form and place the Adult Check banner on their site. Cybernet handles everything else, including providing the software that keeps users from accessing protected pictures without a password.