Dodgy links:
a warning to all webmasters
maintaining lists of links to external sites
by
Graham Davies

Links checked 8 December 2011

Beware of cybersquatter attacks!

EUROCALL, a respectable professional association dedicated to promoting computer assisted language learning, fell victim to a cybersquatter on 16 March 2003. The EUROCALL domain name was grabbed by a company that appears to trawl the Web for domain names that can be recycled for a variety of purposes. This situation arose due to EUROCALL's domain name registration company "transitioning" its records to another company at the time when EUROCALL's name was due for renewal. The domain name formerly owned by EUROCALL, eurocall.org, is now in the hands of a software business. But domain names can change hands and link to something less respectable. This has already happened once to eurocall.net, which is now in the hands of a bona fide mobile phone company. EUROCALL was therefore forced to register a new name: http://www.eurocall-languages.org/

This is not an isolated incident. A visitor to the ICT for Language Teachers (ICT4LT) website, which I maintain, discovered that one of the external links listed there took him to a very unpleasant porn site and not the corpus of legal documents that he expected to find. I know that the site used to contain a corpus of such documents, because I checked it before making the link. The legal corpus site went dead in late 2001, which I discovered when I was doing my regular link check, using the excellent Xenu Link Sleuth freeware package. I hadn't removed the dead link, however, as websites often go down and then revive. I am a lot more wary now!

Cybersquatters (a.k.a. domain name squatters) scour the Web for dead domain names or unused domain names that could be useful and then offer them for sale. It is possible that a porn company, for example, particularly wants a name that has connotations with its business (e.g. CALL as in "call girls" rather than Computer Assisted Language Learning), so they approach a cybersquatter to track down an appropriate name. Some names, however, contain no suggestion of anything remotely connected with offensive material. So, why should a porn site choose an innocent sounding domain name? The domain name may be completely irrelevant. In fact, it may be an advantage to have a domain name that doesn't contain rude words, as it helps to disguise what your real business is. I suppose most of the combinations of rude words in domain names have been used up by now. Search engines will pick up the rude words in the metatags and text at the site in any case, so anyone looking for such stuff can find it. Furthermore, using the name of a dead link is advantageous as it probably means that there are hundreds of sites around referring to the link. So there's a better chance of potential "customers" stumbling across the link by accident – and then maybe getting interested. Typosquatting is also quite common. This is when misspellings of domain names are registered in order to poach potential visitors away from the official sites, e.g. "Google" spelt as "Goggle".

The reaction of the visitor who discovered the transmogrification of the legal corpus into a porn site at the ICT for Language Teachers website was probably typical of most people - he was amused and possibly a little bit titillated. But it's clear that we all have to be careful about verifying links, especially tracking down those that go dead.

I have had similar scary experiences at my business site. In one case a domain name containing the word "lingua" was picked up by a porn site. The link hadn’t gone dead; its ownership had just been transferred.

Filtering software

Some site visitors could be deeply offended if they found a porn link by accident. Others might, of course, just bookmark it :-) Children in particular need to be protected, but if you maintain a links site in a school, for example, you have probably installed filtering software, e.g. CyberPatrol or SafeSurf. There could be legal repercussions, e.g. the parents of a child accessing an offensive site via a school's set of links might take action if they thought the school had been irresponsible. An additional point made in reaction to this document by a colleague reads as follows:

“I'd add another warning: if I had accessed this link during work, I would have contravened company policy and it would be a sackable offence. I hope it wouldn't go that far, but it would be a risk.”

Some time ago the Electronic Distribution Today website carried the following message:

Porn Sites Becoming a Problem: For whatever reason, some legitimate domain names have been given up by their owners/renters. Domain name squatters have snapped up these sites and converted them into porn sites. In our latest update we have dropped three of those sites from our listings. We need your help to police this. If you uncover any porn sites are still on our web site, please e-mail myself at [email protected] Thank you for your assistance, Edward J. Walter, Editor, Electronic Distribution Today.

On 26 October 2001, an article appeared in the Technology section of the online edition of The New York Times, relating a problem with a site containing Ernst & Young's maths and money management game for children. Ernst & Young managed to recover the .com version of the domain name - which still contains the game - but the owner of the .org version is proving difficult to trace and running it as a porn site.

In February 2002 I was sent details of a website whose name suggests that it has something to do with the English language or English language teaching, but it has also been grabbed by a pedlar of pornographic materials.

See also the online Family Internet magazine for regular news features and advice.

Look after your domain name

It is clearly important to register all available versions of your domain name and, above all, to make certain that your domain name registration is renewed when it is about to expire. But EUROCALL fell victim to a situation over which it had no control, i.e. when its domain name registration company was transferring its records (or rather the lack of them) to another company - and the cybersquatter jumped in as soon as the domain name became available. Camsoft experienced a nerve-wracking 3-4 weeks in the summer of 2001 when its hosting service went bankrupt and Camsoft's domain name and website was consequently transferred to another hosting service. Fortunately, the company that took over the bankrupt hosting service proved to be very responsible and responsive - and we're still with them.

My research indicates that you have to be careful about choosing a domain name. You may inadvertently choose a name that has previously belonged to a publisher of offensive material (v. also the case of the singer Madonna, which is well documented on the Web).

Linkrot

There doesn't appear to be a simple solution to maintaining links - just a lot of hard work regularly verifying the websites that you list. And never accept a list of unannotated links from any source. Dying links is a common phenomenon and is sometimes referred to as linkrot: see Jakob Nielsen (1998) Fighting Linkrot. My own experience managing two websites indicates that up to 5% of the listed links move or die each month.

However, salvation has arrived: the Wayback Machine (aka the Internet Archive). Using the Wayback Machine to surf the Web as it was, you just type a URL (a website address) in the dialogue box, click the Take Me Back button, and start exploring the past, choosing a date from the calendar that goes back to the time when the website address was still active.

Isn’t the Web a strange, undisciplined, unpredictable beast? Does anyone have similar experiences? But let's keep the problem in perspective. As one of my correspondents wrote in reaction to this document: "In these days of anthrax, Nimda, Code Red and polymorphic worms, I'm quite relieved to see that's all it was." I suppose he's right. Human and computer viruses are a more immediate nuisance.

Check your links!


© Graham Davies 2011. This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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