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The Privacy Lawyer: Unscrupulous Marketing Practices Of Online Porn Purveyors

The government is cracking down on operators of adult Web sites that use illegal and unethical methods to attract children to their sites, Parry Aftab says.

Many adult sites misrepresent their content or the nature of their sites by registering domain names that are intentionally confusing, using page coding designed to mislead search engines, distributing false advertising to promote site traffic, or hijack visitors of another site. Few Internet users have escaped one of these schemes. In fact, they are among the top complaints of users worldwide. These tactics are the biggest source of unintended exposure to sexually-explicit images and content for Internet users of all ages. But the problem is particularly compelling when children are involved.

Just as adults do, children get spam and unsolicited instant messages with graphic sexual images, content, or links to pornographic sites. Many masquerade as messages from trusted friends or Web sites.

Children also may be tricked into visiting an adult site when they search for age-appropriate words or phrases on a search engine. Many pornographic sites come up in innocent searches, having misrepresented their content or subject matter to the search engines. Or children may misspell the name of their favorite site and find themselves directed to a pornographic site that uses typical misspellings and typos to get children to their sites.

These same practices are also used to attract unwitting adults to their sites (the adult Web-site operators may not care whether the hit is an adult or a child because they are indistinguishable online), when obvious misspellings of popular sites are registered by the adult-site operators.

While it seems logical that because children don't have the ability to purchase adult services, adult Webmasters would try to avoid them, this is, surprisingly, largely untrue. According to a recent U.S. National Academy of Science report, done by the National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, increased competition among pornographers means purveyors are resorting to more aggressive marketing techniques, which include targeting children.

Citing a 2002 Nielsen/Net Ratings report, about 16% of the visitors to adult sites in February 2002 were under the age of 18. One source who testified before the Academy of Science board was quoted as saying that 20% to 30% of traffic to adult sites is comprised of children. Depending on the type of marketing or advertising model used by a particular site, there may be no incentive to filter children. In fact, targeting children may be an effective way of increasing ad revenue. Remember, the name of the game is site traffic where adult sites are concerned. So they can't rely just on keywords to boost traffic.

Most marketing methods contribute to inadvertent child and adult access to sexually-explicit content online.

Some of these practices are regulated under consumer-protection, intellectual-property, advertising, and fraud laws. Others may also violate certain child-protection criminal laws (such as the recently adopted U.S. typo-squatting law) or civil or criminal spam laws (such as Italy's anti-spam criminal code).

Tools Used
Let's look more deeply at some of the tools of the trades for unethical operators of adult sites.

Typo-squatting: Many adult sites register domain names that are the same as other popular sites except for common misspellings. Over a few years, these typo scams have included www.yahhoo.com (which, although now fixed, used to lead to www.rawsex.xxx.com), www.webcralwer.com (a pornography site) instead of the popular search engine www.webcrawler.com, and www.infosek.com (a pornography site) instead of www.infoseek.com (another search engine). Symantec is a recent victim of typo-squatting, too. You may have found that accidently, yourself.

Using different top-level domains (for example, .com, .org, etc.) for popular names: Webmasters can use our limited understanding of how domain names work. Most surfers have learned that when looking for an obvious brand or famous name site, they can often just add .com to it to find the site. Two of the most notorious instances of someone using a famous name to gain traffic from people making mistakes in the .com, .gov, .org, or various country designations are www.whitehouse.com (a pornography site that it's owner says is going legit) rather than www.whitehouse.gov (the real site for the White House), and www.nasa.com (a pornography billboard site that was shut down in 1997) rather than www.nasa.gov, NASA's official site.

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