The Dotsex Swindle

After I'd received close to a dozen spam e-mails and faxes from a website called dotsex.com, I decided to pay them a visit.

Apparently, for an annual fee of just 59 bucks, I could own a domain name with .sex at the end of it! Just think, I could buy www.mynameherem.sex, and get tons and tons of traffic! Wow. It almost made me want to sign up to be a dotsex "affiliate" (only 500 bucks!), and try to sell .sex domains to other suckers -- er, I mean entrepreneurs.

You see, for all intents and purposes, .sex doesn't exist as a top level domain (TLD) -- there are only a rather small, finite number of officially recognized TLDs like .com and .edu, which anyone can see by typing something like www.stileproject.com or www.berkeley.edu into a browser.

The non-profit organization in charge of assigning TLDs, known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN -- www.icann.org), just recently, after much agonizing and committee-meeting, determined that it would add a handful of new TLDs to the official list. These include things like .museum, .tv, and .biz.

There's actually a very political side to all this. Certain malcontents and freedom fighters aren't exactly happy with the idea of an elite group of Internet nerds telling them what kinds of TLDs they can have. Since 1998, when the U.S. government granted ICANN its present powers over TLDs among other things, anti-ICANN groups have sprung up all over the Net (see www.icannwatch.org and www.open-rsc.org) to challenge what seems like government by gentlemanly fascism. Some of the protesters are companies who spent the $50,000 application fee to have new TLDs considered by ICANN, only to have their requests turned down. Other protesters are activists who are against having major Internet descisions made by a single group whom they didn't even elect.

The chaos around ICANN -- coupled with most Internet users' total ignorance about the bureaucratic ins and outs of TLD assignations -- has led directly to questionable businesses like dotsex.com. Fact is, you can legally buy www.ass.sex as many times as you want, and any other .sex TLD. But it won't be supported by ICANN's 26 domain name service (DNS) servers, which hold in their collective memories every single domain name whose TLD is among the chosen few. This wouldn't be such a big deal if it weren't for the fact that practically every piece of Internet-related software has been written to access ICANN's DNS servers whenever you type a website address into the nifty little box at the top of your browser window. That means when Jane Horny types www.barrymanilow.sex into Netscape on her iMac, her browser will automatically search for this address in ICANN's servers and come back at her with a "not found" alert.

You can change the DNS settings on your browser, of course, if you know how. There are potentially thousands of "alternate" DNS servers out there set up by anti-ICANN types or companies like New.net who sell non-official TLDs. If you type the addresses of these alternate DNS servers into the appropriate places in your browser, you'll be able to see domains with various random unofficial TLDs like .sex or .family or .butthole. But most ordinary people using the Internet would probably rather bash their heads into a cement wall than try to figure all this crap out. And these are the very people dotsex.com is trying to target: the people who have no idea that if they buy www.barrymanilow.sex, nobody will be able to see it without changing his or her DNS settings. That means most people will never see the glory of www.barrymanilow.sex.

In a slapsticky twist, the dotsex.com folks are already being sued by a Florida company called Domain Name Systems, who are also selling .sex TLDs and claim that dotsex.com is infringing on their trademark and "confusing" their customers. Confusing, indeed.

ICANN has already issued a statement saying that it is unlikely to approve new TLDs that are already being sold, because it's likely that multiple people are being suckered into buying the same domain names and if those names became official there would be total insanity. And the Federal Trade Commission has issued a consumer alert (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/domainalrt.htm) about "domain name registration scams." Even Adult Webmaster magazine (www.adultwebmaster.com) has said "[dotsex.com] is not legit."

When I called ICANN to find out if dotsex.com could actually be considered fraudulant, spokesperson Fernando Villegas admitted that they'd already received a lot of complaints about the company, but that they weren't technically doing anything illegal. "They do mention somewhere on the site that you have to have extensions to view the .sex domains, all of which is perfectly legal," Villegas said.

The exact words on the dotsex website about all this? It says, "The .sex domain names ... [can] be viewed on the Internet by making a slight alteration to your web browser." Yeah, right. And if you believe that, I've got a giant multinational software company to sell you.

Annalee Newitz (dotbleah@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who reminds you that your DNS server settings were chosen by a corporation. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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