Sex Sites Capitalizing on Misleading URLs

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.

Dan Parisi, who operates the "whitehouse" commercial site, doesn't feel that he's doing anything wrong. "I'm not trying to fool anyone. That's why I put up a warning page. We're on all the blocking programs, and I've done everything possible to make it easy for parents to block my site."

Parisi says he started the site as a political parody but "after investing about $30,000 in it, I wasn't making any money." He then read a newspaper story about how adult Web sites were making money. "I asked my attorneys and they said that it wouldn't be a trademark violation for me to use the name 'Whitehouse' for an adult site."

Parisi's Web site has posted a copy of a letter he says he received from the White House counsel's office (http://www.whitehouse.com/whitehousel.html)that says, "However distasteful your business may be, we do not challenge your right to pursue it or to exercise your First Amendment rights, but we do challenge your right to use the White House, the president and the first lady as a marketing device." The letter, however, does not threaten litigation or prosecution.

Says Jim Kennedy, special advisor to the White House counsel: "We find this usage of the phrase 'White House' particularly objectionable. . . . It has the direct consequence of luring young people to an inappropriate site because it is natural to assume that young people might well try to access the White House domain. This is very offensive and deceptive." He would not comment on whether the White House plans to take legal action against Parisi. John Mahoney is vice president of Host Networks, which for about two years operated a stealth "NASA" site that carried links and banner advertisements for adult Web sites.

Last summer, NASA.COM was shut down by Network Solutions, the firm that administers domain names. The company acted at the request of NASA, which intervened based on a federal statute prohibiting the unauthorized use of the NASA name in conjunction with a product or service, according to Network Solutions spokesman David Graves.

Mahoney wouldn't comment on the intent behind naming his Web site, but he said "it's not our fault" if a child or anyone else accidentally visits his site instead of the one operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "People need to be educated," he said. "Going to a 'com'-level domain and expecting to find a government agency is ridiculous."

Well, it may be ridiculous, but it's an easy mistake to make. Mahoney said that people who visited the site saw a disclaimer saying that "we weren't associated with the space agency."

He said the site "received a million hits a day" during the Pathfinder space mission. Before that it was about "6,000 hits a day," he said.

A company or agency that believes its trademark has been misused may have legal recourse, according to Andrew Bridges, a partner in charge of the trademark and advertising division of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Palo Alto law firm. "People who think that they can get away with things based on technicalities of trademark law will probably end up being surprised and disappointed," he said.

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at magid@latimes.com. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com or keyword LarryMagid on AOL.

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