Reregistered for Distribution of Unrelated Content:
A Case Study of "Tina's Free Live Webcam"
[ Overview - "Tina's Webcam" - Testing Results - Summary Statistics - Conclusions - Policy Implications - Motivation ]
In recent years, many Internet users have become aware that when domain names expire (after their original registrants forget, fail, or otherwise decline to renew them), the domain names may be reregistered by others. This feature of the management of the domain name system might be thought to be desirable since it allows and facilitates a turnover of names from those uninterested in using them to those who in fact do seek to put them to active use. But recent experience shows that this structure also allows domains to be renewed by firms who do not seem to seek to use the domains to offer original content but rather seem to hope to profit from the prior promotional works of others.
In particular, such firms often offer pornographic or sexually-explicit images, advertising, or links or redirects to other commercial sites. The apparent expectation of such firms is that at least some users will request the web pages previously (before domain expiration) hosting other content; any such users will instead be shown this new content, likely creating profits for the firms that reregistered the expired domain names.
In recent research, I have documented several thousand domains reregistered by one particular firm -- many domain names that all redirect users to one particular web page displaying sexually explicit images. While this research is by no means exhaustive -- other firms are likely conducting similar registration practices, and still others make numerous registrations and reregistrations that no doubt differ in various ways -- a review of these specific registrations as well as their general characteristics may be helpful in understanding the behavior at issue.
A Case Study: "Tina's Webcam" Reregistrations by Domainstrategy.com
DNS zone files, default HTTP response pages, and WHOIS contact information reflect that a firm called DomainStrategy (http://www.domainstrategy.com/) operates some 4000+ domain names that all redirect to a page called "Tina's Free Live Webcam" (henceforth, "Tina") available at http://www.tinawebcam.com/ (warning: sexually-explicit content).
The domain names that redirect to Tina are a mixture of three types of character strings. A portion of the domains use generic combinations of numbers and letters without any obvious meaning (a5s.org, 8ca.net, 5218.net). Other domains use words or combinations of words that clearly suggest the presence of sexually-explicit content (a1porno.com, a1asians.com, free-black-gay-sex.com). Some of these strings may accurately describe the content available from Tina's site; however, at least from the front page of the Tina site, it is uncertain that many or even most of these strings in fact correctly describe the content available after registration. Finally, many of the domains have character strings that suggest the presence of content quite different from the content ultimately presented after a redirect to the Tina site. For example, americanmuseumofnaturalhistory.com, aplusparents.com, babysitters.com, bicyclebills.com, childrens-media.org, childrenwithaids.org, familyconnection.net, freecipro.com, fraudindex.com, harvardfootball.org, jackson-family.com, minnesotamom.com, napa-auto-parts.com, oceanicmuseum.com, ourchildstoys.com, ridgefieldhighschool.com, and savannah-bbb.org each suggest the availability of a certain kind of content other than sexually-explicit images.
The Tina site seems to be operated by the same DomainStrategy firm that registered the 4000+ domain names referring to it; Tina and the referring sites share similar WHOIS contact information.
Update: As of August 16, Tina's Webcam seems to have been renamed "Wanda's Webcam." The web content previously available at the Tina site is now available under Wanda's name, including the same images of the same woman. The change in name has made this site's analysis somewhat harder to find -- newcomers to DomainStrategy registrations will likely search for "Wanda's Webcam" rather than Tina's -- which leads the author to suggest that DomainStrategy may have renamed the site in order to confuse Internet users and search engines. Update: As of February 2003, the site seems to have changed names again, this time to "Sophy's Free Live Cam."
"Tina's Webcam": Specific Testing Results
In recent testing and archiving, I have prepared a listing of a total of 4525 distinct domains that all redirect to the page entitled "Tina's Free Live Webcam."
For each domain, I have attempted to obtain a variety of information including:
Due to the large size of the listing of results (>4MB total), it is available in sections by letter of domain name:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z numbers
Update: As of April 24, the web page at http://www.tinawebcam.com has been placed with a "Forbidden" error. The various domains in the listing above now display the page previously and currently visible at http://www.domainstrategy.com. View a screenshot of the Tina's Webcam site as it was until April 23.
Update: The DomainStrategy.com page provides a link to public, freely-available statistics tabulated by extremetracking.com of usage of the DomainStrategy.com site. These statistics report that, since DomainStrategy reconfigured its domains to point to its DomainStrategy page rather than Tina's Webcam, it has received some 25,000+ visitors per day at that page -- no doubt partly inflated by the publication and discussion of this report, but nonetheless a large volume of traffic. A Yahoo-Korea site provided a link that yielded some 70,000 hits between November 14, 2001 and April 25, 2002. Especially popular DomainStrategy-registered domains include domains that would at first glance seem to be related to certain movies, restaurants, stores, humor sites, and at least one police department. See snapshots of overview of usage, top domains, usage by day, top users, and specific users (as they stood on April 25, 2002).
Update: As of May 10, sexually-explicit "Tina's Webcam" content has returned to most of the domains linked above. New data also suggests that DomainStrategy continues to reregister additional domains and ordinarily displays Tina content on them.
"Tina's Webcam": Summary Statistics
Of the 4525 distinct domains redirecting to Tina, prior titles (different from current titles) were retrievable for 2991 domains, reflecting that these 2991 domains previously hosted different content than is currently the case.
Archive.org archives are available for 4156 of the domains, allowing the viewing of as many as 993 distinct versions of each domain.
According to current testing in Google, 2066 domains are mentioned in one or more web pages (as via a link or a textual reference to the domain name).
Yahoo continues to classify 210 of the domains into its hierarchical directory categories. In a casual inspection, none of these categories seems to properly characterize the content available from the "Tina's Webcam" site.
Many of the Tina domains are or have previously been very popular. Between December 2001 and May 2002, users of the Alexa toolbar software accessed the most popular of the domains now registered to Tina some 3.8 million times. 68 distinct Tina domains were accessed more than 100,000 times during this period, 102 more than 50,000 times, 281 more than 10,000 times, and 725 more than 1,000 times.
While the data linked above is but a single case study of what seems to be a more widespread phenomenon, it is nonetheless possible to draw certain conclusions on the basis of work completed to date. Possible conclusions include the following:
Future Work, Discussion, and Policy Implications
It would be desirable to better understand the scope of the renewal behavior practiced by DomainStrategy -- in particular, to determine what other firms (if any) follow similar practices. My future work will seek to document other instances of similar behavior -- and ultimately, via an exhaustive or representative study of the namespace, to speak to its scope. For the moment, my research technology requires an initial "seed" domain as an example of such registrations; automated systems subsequently find other examples of domains registered by the same firm, but a human must provide a single example domain registered by each firm. To that end, I welcome and appreciate the submission of examples of such domains.
While a full policy analysis is beyond the scope of the current project, available data provides some guidance to those who are concerned by the prospect of unexpected changes in domain registration, particularly when such changes entail significant changes in the type of content available at a particular web address. In particular, this data seems to support the claim that changes in domain registration are widespread; there are at least many thousands of examples of such behavior, and these thousands were obtained in only several days of automated search. Further testing will likely produce tens or hundreds of thousands of similar domains transferred to new registrants via a similar process.
To the extent that reregistrations by new registrants are thought to be problematic, the concern likely results from at least three factors. First, as a result of such reregistration, the initial registrant loses the use of the domain name at issue; the loss of the domain presents a setback to the initial registrant's prior efforts to build a business, identity, or brand around the domain name. Second, should the subsequent registrant use the domain to provide content that the initial registrant's customers or associates consider offensive, illegal, or otherwise undesirable, the initial registrant risks some tarnishment of his reputation from the undesirable content offered at his prior domain. Third, there may be privacy implications, as when sensitive materials are sent to email addresses at domains operated by a new registrant.
It is important to note that the second cause for concern results not only from users typing in outdated web addresses from memory (or from fixed sources such as business cards, letterhead, or advertisements). Instead, current testing reflects that search engines and other pages may continue to offer outdated links and descriptions -- references that fail to properly represent the latest content available at a given web address. Rapid updates of search engines is difficult given the size of the Internet and its speed of change, but search engines might attempt to improve accuracy here via some partnership with DNS registries so as to receive faster notification of changes of domain registration. (Such information could be offered freely to the interested public in some automatically-generated form, just as current zone files are offered by Verisign.) Alternatively, search engines could improve and better publicize their "report an error" features, and directories like Yahoo could add a specific form and prioritized processing procedure for reporting and correcting the total misclassification of a web site. Via these methods, search engines might improve their accuracy in properly describing and referencing the content at given web addresses.
While these problems are difficult to resolve within the framework of domains registered for use for some number of years -- rather than "owned" as real property may be owned -- several policies may help to mitigate the problem.
In evaluating appropriate policies for domain expiration and transfer, it may in some instances be helpful to consider real-world analogies. For example, disconnecting a consumer's home electricity or water supply requires an extended period and complex procedure specifically designed to give the consumer the benefit of the doubt at every turn; evicting a tenant from a rental property follows a similar approach. While such procedures may be considered somewhat excessive in the context of domain renewal, the underlying principles of deliberateness and conservatism may prove helpful in assuring the predictability of the name space.
In related research, I have documented more than two thousand additional reregistered domains with intentionally-invalid WHOIS data entered by their single registrant.
The purpose of this work is primarily academic -- to document the activity at issue for the benefit of those who seek to make policy decisions on related matters. For example, ICANN has convened a Redemption Grace Period Steering Group to investigate policies ICANN might encourage that would, perhaps among other benefits, address some portion of the consumer confusion and other difficulties that may reduce the problems discussed here.
This page is made available to inform discussion about the registration of Internet domain names. The data contained here is not intended for use for other purposes, and it should not be used for other purposes without first contacting the author.
Background information about this topic is available from articles such as the following:
In order to confirm the results of my testing and to attempt to obtain certain other information, I attempted to reach the contacts listed in certain of the WHOIS records of domains referring to Tina's Webcam. I have to date received no reply. Comments from Tina's staff remain welcome, as are comments from others interested; with the permission of the author, comments may be posted or linked from this page as appropriate.