As we cry a collective "Foul!" however, one has to ask: "Didn't we bring this on ourselves? Haven't there been calls for greater social responsibility and more reserved marketing approaches since the very inception of our industry?"
Those who have attended any legal seminars at industry events over the years have certainly heard the steady drumbeat from the legal sector, calling our attention to issues looming on the horizon. From 2257 record-keeping law to the specter of obscenity prosecutions and anti-spam measures that culminated in Can-Spam and the Federal Trade Commission's final rule on sexually explicit email, we were forewarned every step of the way. For years, many derided the warnings of industry attorneys as nothing more than scare tactics designed to drum up business for their firms, but not rooted in any real legal exposure or risk.
Over the past two years, though, we've seen a pattern centered on what one might call the "3 Rs" of the adult online industry: "Risk," "Recrimination" and "Regulation." First, members of our community decide to push the Risk envelope in some fashion — be it through bulk email, spyware installs, aggressive cross-selling or promotion of "extreme" content — at which point, Recrimination comes in the form of complaints from furious parents and self-righteous "family" organizations, inevitably calling for increased Regulation, handed down by legislators looking to score political points with their porn-weary constituents.
There seems to be no question that our industry has invited all this unwanted attention on itself; the question that naturally follows is whether this is a case of "a few bad apples" or whether risky business practices are endemic to the industry as a whole.
"I've said it a lot — this is the only industry that pays itself to destroy itself," says Steve Lightspeed, owner of Lightspeed Cash, and historically a vocal critic of what he deems over-aggressive marketing practices.
Effects Of Wild West Days
Lightspeed clearly feels that the problem is rooted in the early days of the industry, when fraudulent business practices were more commonplace than they are today.
"I think we are seeing repercussions from the Wild West days of the net," he said. "I think there should be civil and criminal prosecutions of people who have done wrong, but trying to regulate everyone else is punishing the wrong people."
Arlo Gilbert, owner of iDownload.com and the QuickBuck affiliate program, is among those who have been criticized for pushing the envelope with their marketing, due to the wide distribution of iDownload's adware products. Gilbert counters that "adware is just another medium. Just like with dialers, where there are those who abuse them and those who use them fairly. Regardless of what some people have said, we've always stayed on the kinder, gentler side of desktop marketing."
Gilbert agrees that people who do cross the line are responsible for the unwanted attention on the industry.
"It's a combination of things, really," he said. "I think almost 100 percent of the billing regulations we've seen come down from Visa have been a result of aggressive business practices by companies who churn and burn banks and then hide behind IPSPs."
It's not just direct actions that have contributed to the increase in negative attention being paid to the adult industry; many have contributed to the problem simply by doing business with organizations and individuals that employ over-aggressive or otherwise suspect business practices.
"How many people took advantage of misleading domain names, typo-squatting, hijacking, mousetrapping or accepted traffic without questioning the source of this traffic?" asks Joan Irvine, executive director for the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection. "How many people accepted traffic from John Zuccarini? This person lured thousands of unsuspecting children using commonly misspelled variations of URLs such as Disneyland, Teletubbies and Britney Spears. Because of this practice, thousands of children and adults were unwillingly exposed to adult content. He is the most visible reason that the adult industry was condemned for this and the government did what it knows how to do — it passed the Truth in Domain Names Act."
The ostensible driving force behind the push for greater internal and external regulation of the adult industry, be it the revised 2257 regulations, the proposed .XXX sponsored top level domain, or the recently proposed 25 percent tax on adult sites, is to shield children from pornography. Whether the goal is to keep children from viewing porn, or, far more serious, being forced to participate in it, child protection is the stated goal for virtually every piece of recent regulatory legislation.
Brandon Shalton of FightThePatent.com sees a potential for various regulatory measures working in concert to shift the focus from individual "rogue" webmasters and companies to larger affiliate programs.
"Mainstream is saying there are 260 million adult websites," he said. "I think they mean 260 million pages, but the uproar is really about all the free hosted galleries, free sites and affiliate marketing tactics [like spam]. With the new 2257 regulations, though, sponsors are going to be supplying more free hosted galleries than ever, since they can control 2257 — but that means the sponsor is much more the focus of the public outcry of children seeing bad stuff."
Many question whether the real goals of these regulatory practices are to protect children. "The government couldn't get Rob Black or Max Hardcore convicted of obscenity, so they have to use another route to go after those they don't like," said Gilbert and there is little question that our industry's overall ambivalence toward aggressive marketing of free content is what drew the federal government's attention and serves to bolster the underlying logic of those that proclaim a necessity for tighter controls.
"Nobody questioned it when aggressive companies and affiliates started shoving porn in people's face," Irvine said. "They screwed themselves by letting this stuff get in front of children."
So where does the industry go from here? While the Free Speech Coalition and various industry attorneys man the trenches on the legal front, what can affiliate program owners and webmasters alike do to navigate the potentially stormy waters ahead? The answer may boil down to one simple word: professionalize.
"I have one of the few big programs that is making more than last year," Lightspeed said. "We never took a hit from losing pre-checked cross sales, spam becoming illegal, popup blockers, adware removers, etc." Nor does Lightspeed see new legislation or regulation, as it exists or as it is proposed, ever stopping the adult industry. "The demand will always be there," he said. "This is not a sprint but a marathon; the last man standing will have the last laugh — all the way to the bank."
Quentin Boyer started in the adult industry in 1997, headed the marketing and PR departments at TopBucks for two years, and currently provides consulting services to a variety of adult ventures, including 2257-compliance.com.