Computer Consult: Will sex merchants invade your Web site?

April 11, 2003

If you forget to renew your domain name, your Web site could become a porn portal. Here's how to avoid an X rating.

 

Computer Consult

By Robert Lowes

Will sex merchants invade your Web site?

• Register your domain name for the maximum 10 years.

• Make sure you're listed as the registrant and administrative contact for your domain name.

• Provide your registrar with up-to-date contact info.

Family physicians Greg and Elizabeth Gibbons in Cary, NC, have a new practice Web site, registered under the domain name www.drgibbons.net. The photos there of smiling children and a playful dolphin are a far cry from what visitors used to see at www.gibbonsfamilymedicine.com, the couple's old Web site. For several months, that site didn't exactly stand for family values.

 

The most offensive aspect probably was the link to an online store for sex toys. The photo of an overexposed woman getting a diagnostic scan may have perturbed patients, too.

If you think the Gibbonses are kinky, think again. The only thing you can fault them for is failing to renew their Web site's domain name before it expired last fall. They assumed the company that hosted the site would do the paperwork. Instead, a British company bought rights to the name and gained control of their site. It then inserted the link to the online sex toys shop, links to lingerie and cell-phone sites, and the titillating photo. (All this sleaziness disappeared in February, when the British company revamped the site to say simply that the domain name was up for sale.)

The Gibbonses are innocent victims of "porn-napping." Porn-nappers have seized Web sites from schools, arts groups, religious organizations, and government agencies, all because someone accidentally let a domain name lapse.

Once they gain control of a site, porn-nappers direct traffic via hyperlinks—some full-blown advertisements—to X-rated spots on the Web. Often, they attempt to sell the domain name back to its original owner, usually for a six-figure sum.

Greg Gibbons says A1 Web Services, the London company that acquired his site, never contacted him about a ransom or anything else. His efforts to contact A1 Web Services proved fruitless. This magazine, however, succeeded in tracking down Chris Smith, the company's marketing director. Smith defends A1's actions.

"We haven't broken any laws," says Smith. "We legally own the domain name, so we can do what we want to the site. It's not our intention to harm anyone, though."

But the damage is already done. Shocked patients who saw the sexed-up site gave the Gibbonses a piece of their mind. They tried to explain what happened, but it wasn't easy; the subject of domain-name registration is as convoluted as the wires plugged into your computer.

Domain names are registered with any of 160-odd registration companies accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. Names are registered with those firms directly or through "resellers" working with them. Registering a domain name gives you temporary control of it—for anywhere from one to 10 years, the maximum allowed. If you don't renew the name after your time is up, eventually it goes on the open market. An "aggregator" can then buy the name and redirect visitors elsewhere—frequently to sex and gambling sites. Unless your name is trademarked or copyrighted, you generally have no legal recourse, says ICANN vice president Louis Touton.

If you have a Web site through a service such as Medem (www.medem.com) or Salu (www.salu.net ), you don't deal with registration and renewal issues. That's because your Web site address is part of the service's domain name, which the service registered itself. But if your Web address is a stand-alone name, like www.gibbonsfamilymedicine, managing it is your responsibility.

Obviously, businesses with Web sites should mark their calendars so they don't forget to renew. To jog memories, registrars send renewal notices to parties listed as registrants, or to those listed as administrative or billing contacts, before domain names expire.

Many of these notices are ignored. But sometimes a business owner never receives a notice, because he has changed his snail-mail or e-mail address since he registered and the registrar doesn't have new contact information. So it's important to update your registration data when a change occurs. Some registrars allow business owners to do this online.

Another reason a business might not receive a renewal notice is that the owner's name doesn't appear in the registrar's records. This happens if you hire a company to design and host your Web site, and it promises to register the domain name for you. Then the company lists itself for all the contact information, including registrant, which means it receives the renewal notices. But what if the Web company misses the deadline or goes out of business? Your Web site could end up looking like Las Vegas.

The lesson: If you delegate domain-name registration to another party, insist that it list you as the registrant and the contact for billing and administrative concerns. That way, you'll be in the renewal-notice loop.

If you don't know how you're listed, go to an ICANN-operated Web site called InterNIC (www.internic.net). Click on the "Whois" link and type your domain name, without the www, in the search-engine window that appears. InterNIC will show the registrar for your name. Then go to that registrar's Web site and repeat the process on its own "Whois" search engine. There, you'll see who's listed as what. If you already know your registrar's name, skip the InterNIC step.

Thwarting porn-nappers is easier if you take these precautions:

Register your name for the long haul. Renewal is less of a hassle if you do it once every 10 years as opposed to every two. So pick the 10-year term—which is generally cheaper on a prorated basis—when you're registering or renewing. Most registrars allow you to extend a current registration at any time, so do this now.

Pick a conscientious registrar. Some registrars send out renewal notices only by e-mail. Network Solutions, the oldest registration company, uses both snail-mail and e-mail. And it offers automatic renewal so you don't have to remember to re-up. Interested in switching registrars mid-stream? It's possible. To get started, contact the registrar that you'd like as a replacement. If you want to shop around, ask a Web design or Web hosting company for references, or type "domain name registration" into an Internet search engine. You also can find a list of ICANN-approved registrars at that organization's Web site (www.icann.org).

Consider "SnapBack" protection. For $69 a year, a company called SnapNames ( www.snapnames.com) will automatically try to buy back an expired domain name for you. "We beat the aggregators to the punch about 80 percent of the time," says SnapNames spokesperson Mason Cole.

All these safeguards may look like overkill, but not to Greg and Elizabeth Gibbons. "It hurts that someone would put this sleaze out with our name on it," says Greg, recalling the smut on his old Web site.

The Gibbonses have since registered their new domain name so renewal notices will come their way. "We're staying on top of it this time," Greg says. His new domain name will expire Nov. 29, 2007.

The author, who is based in St. Louis, is a Senior Editor of Medical Economics.

 

 

Robert Lowes. Computer Consult: Will sex merchants invade your Web site?. Medical Economics 2003;7:25.