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Misleading Domain Names

Misleading Domain Names

May 9, 2003
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" Whoever knowingly uses a misleading domain name on the Internet with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both. "

On April 30th, President Bush, incensed over misleading domain names – whitehouse.com in particular – that led unknowing surfers to Internet porn sites, enacted legislation that could mean federal prison terms of up to 4 years for adult site operators who employed innocuous sounding domain names. This is but one facet of an evolving series of concerns for adult webmasters, coming to us in the guise of the Amber Bill:

Modern legislation is a funny thing: in the often bizarre give and take required to pass nearly any major bill, a myriad variety of supplemental appendages sprout forth from every direction – all vying for the favorable sunshine that ensues from constituents, Political Action Committees (PACs) and lobbyists. The latest piece of work to bask in this warm glow is the so-called ‘Amber Alert Bill’ – which does have needed provisions that beneficially impact our industry by assaulting its worst elements, but which also contains over-reaching elements that will impact many of us, with the now-illegal use of ‘misleading’ domain names among them.

One of the biggest areas of concern for many adult webmasters is the issue of misleading domain names. While I will never defend the use of “intentionally deceptive” domain names, such as when a webmaster registers an ‘unintentionally’ expired domain for a church or civic group and then redirects it to a porn site (especially when that domain or its keywords is targeted towards children), there are ‘innocent’ cases where a domain name may be perceived as ‘misleading.’

For example, an adult web site with a domain name like ‘movie-archive.com’ could easily be mistaken for a mainstream site, and will doubtless find a bit of ‘type-in’ traffic falling into it by mistake – and being quite surprised when they’re greeted by a banner offering “Young Girls ~ Shaved Pussy” all just a click away…

While such a domain name could just as plausibly BE an ‘adult’ movie archive, the lack of any obviously adult keywords such as ‘sex,’ ‘porn,’ or even ‘adult’ in the domain name can lead to surfer confusion, and is exactly the kind of name to be targeted by this new legislation – though ‘deception’ was unlikely on the mind of the webmistress of this site when she built it.

From The Horse’s Mouth
Here’s the actual legislation text: “Whoever knowingly uses a misleading domain name on the Internet with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both. Whoever knowingly uses a misleading domain name on the Internet with the intent to deceive a minor into viewing material that is harmful to minors on the Internet shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 4 years, or both.

For the purposes of this section, a domain name that includes a word or words to indicate the sexual content of the site, such as ‘sex’ or ‘porn,’ is not misleading. For the purposes of this section, the term ‘material that is harmful to minors’ means any communication, consisting of nudity, sex, or excretion, that, taken as a whole and with reference to its context predominantly appeals to a prurient interest of minors; is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors; and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors. …the term ‘sex’ means acts of masturbation, sexual intercourse, or physical contact with a person's genitals, or the condition of human male or female genitals when in a state of sexual stimulation or arousal.”

Like many other adult webmasters, I will be personally affected by this legislation. While I have not setup ‘intentionally deceptive’ domains or web sites, I do have a handful of currently unused domain names that are parked and pointed to one of our adult properties. Innocuous names like ‘sportster-racing.com’ that I had acquired in order to build a mainstream community site around the Harley-Davidson drag racing scene, which I am a fan of. Now, I’m in the process of cataloging all of my parked domains, and ensuring that all ‘mainstream’ domains point to mainstream sites, while the obviously adult ones point to adult properties.

While ‘questionable’ domains – those with names which can potentially be mistaken as leading to mainstream sites, especially due to their ‘vagueness,’ might be harder to deal with, it’s clear that many sites will require a shift in name, or content, to come into compliance with this new law. This will not only burden webmasters who have invested in infrastructure, branding, and marketing (how many links and search results point to domains YOU own that will not be in compliance?), but be a prosecutorial burden that could shift focus away from more pressing issues such as the ‘real’ fight against child porn.

Still, webmasters who have domain names of concern should at this point be seeking legal council over the most appropriate actions to take. While having ‘porn’ or ‘sex’ in your domain name will provide a degree of legal protection, there may be other steps that can be taken to mitigate the risk involved with the use of ‘questionable’ domain names. Again, this is something to discuss with council. Take care ~ Stephen


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