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Porn sites buying lapsed domain names

UPI
 

NEW YORK -- Hundreds of corporations, organizations, churches and even the Ohio State Senate have found themselves red faced after they discovered that their lapsed Internet domain names have turned into pornography Web sites.

"After this happened to us in the Cleveland Diocese, I got a lot of telephone calls and I'm told, this has happened all over corporate America," Bob Tayek, director of media for the Cleveland Diocese, told United Press International. "It also happened to an Amusement Park in Ohio as well as a junior college in California and the Ohio State Senate.

"A company called RussX Casting Corp. in Russia -- in conjunction with an organization called "eee X Hosting" in California -- has purchased expired domain names to use for pornographic sites," according to Ron Wolf, Web master for Orlando-based-The Florida Catholic, a diocesan newspaper. "Brokers are 'mining' lapsed and lapsing domain names on the Internet and they are buying the domain names and reselling them," Wolf told UPI. "The Good News Web Designers Association, a Catholic-owned organization in St. Petersburg, issued a warning that a pornographic Website based in Russia has launched a campaign of buying up expired Catholic domain names and automatically redirecting innocent visitors to their porn sites."

According to Wolf, if Web site owners let their domain names expire, everyone who had the old site listed in "favorites" or "bookmarked" will be diverted to a porn site when they click on the old domain link. Every search engine that had picked up that original site is still listing it and directing them to the porn site; and every directory or Web site that still has a link to the original site is sending people to a porn site.

"Someone in Maryland who had gone to one of our Catholic schools was looking at our Web site and he discovered a porn site on it, then I got another call from someone in Westchester who said the same thing," Brooklyn Diocese spokesman Frank DeRosa told UPI. "One of our religious education ministries inadvertently didn't renew its domain name and we are investigating how a Russian porn site got it."

Abandoned sites and their domain names have grown because of the way domain names are registered. Less then ten years ago, domain names were limited to 14 characters, so Web site owners had to create acronyms and abbreviations to fit space requirement.

In 1999, the name limit was extended to 67 characters so many Web site owners created longer names that were easier to remember, and dumped the old sites.

The porn sites are looking for Web sites with a lot of links that increase the chance of someone opening the porn site. For example, many of the Roman Catholic web sites have national and international links to them such as The Vatican. Someone could use the Vatican site to link to a large diocese for genealogical information and happen upon the porn Web site.

"We had a domain name that was created 8 years ago that wasn't user-friendly, people couldn't remember it, it was hyphenated, abbreviated and awkward," Tayek said. "We changed the domain name to the longer but simpler "clevelanddiocese.org" and informed our members and the major search engines of the change one year ago and then we intentionally dropped the old site." A priest in an Ohio seminary had the original Web site address bookmarked on his computer and when he looked at it he discovered that it had turned into a porn site.

"Even though we informed the search engines a year ago, some have still not changed to the new domain name," Tayek said. "So in addition to someone happening upon the porn site through a bookmark, a person looking up the old domain name in a search engine would have brought up the porn site link." The Cleveland Diocese immediately investigated and traced the problem to a west coast broker who blocked the site and gave it back to the diocese within 24 hours.

"We have retained the original domain name and we will continue to keep it just so no one else can get his hands on it," Tayek said. "We may be a little paranoid at this point, but we've also registered all variations of our domain names including those using .com and .net in addition to our. org."

In addition, the Cleveland Diocese has included the following warning to its Web site: "The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland takes full responsibility for the content of this Website. Although sincere efforts have been made to offer links only to other Websites whose content is faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland is not responsible for the content of other Websites accessible by link (s) from this Website." Wolf pointed out that in addition to the problems caused by the old domain names to their old owners, the situation could lead to a worker being fired or facing disciplinary actions for inadvertently opening a porn site while attempting to visit a Catholic site at work.

"Suppose someone works at a company which has a zero-tolerance for this type of Web site that one can visit while at work," Wolf said. "You do an innocent search for a particular Catholic web site, and when you click on that site link you end up on a porn site. Many companies monitor web activities of employees and someone could face dismissal."

Wolf suggested owners of former domain names track the links to their Web sites by visiting www.google.com and typing in the domain name. The search result will offer the option "find Web pages that link to (your site)." Former domain owners can contact those sites to have the link removed. There is no way of finding every place where a site has been linked and it's possible that many Web sites have links without permission.

"Often, you can buy your old domain name back from the new owner, but they are typically ransoming such domain names for no less than $500," Wolf said. "Former Web site owners can also file a grievance with ICANN, the international body that regulates registrars and domain name registrations on the Internet, to reclaim the old name."

The situation has demonstrated the best and the worst of the Internet, according to Tayek.

"We're using the Web to evangelize and spread the good news of Jesus Christ and explain how Catholics can find their way back to the church while some of the porn on the Internet demonstrates some of the worst of cyberspace." (Reported by Alex Cukan in Albany, N.Y.)

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.

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