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Web addresses get nip and tuck--and spam

A gaggle of Web sites have set upon the idea of shortening cumbersome URLs. But the free service also includes spam.

A crop of Web sites have sprung up with the mission of making long, easily breakable Web addresses shorter--and at least one of them is trying to make money at the idea.

Sites like TinyURL.com, Shorlify and Make A Shorter Link aim to solve a problem as old as the mainstream Web itself: After database-generated Web addresses, also known as uniform resource locators (URLs), get to be a certain length, they become not only impossible to remember, but difficult to forward between some e-mail programs that automatically insert line breaks.

In some e-mail programs, the line breaks disrupt the hyperlink in the URL, and even prevent the recipient from copying and pasting the split link into a browser's address bar.

The URL-abbreviating services provide a brief substitute URL that redirects to the original, unwieldy and unbroken one.

"I learned about TinyURLs from other folks were using them on e-mail lists," said Richard Smith, a computer security consultant who posts frequently to the Bugtraq security mailing list and others. "I started using them sometimes, too, because I got tried of people telling me that a URL that I sent around didn't work."

The idea of making Web addresses simpler isn't new. Before going out of business last year, a company called RealNames garnered investments by Network Solutions and Microsoft for its alternative, simplified Web address database. But that paid system never caught on with the general public, and corporate interest faded.

Now free address-substitution sites are making a go of it, hoping to earn some cash on the side.

TinyURL is run by Kevin "Gilby" Gilbertson, a 24-year-old Web developer in Blaine, Minn. Gilbertson, an avid unicyclist, launched his site in January 2002, after writing an application that duplicated messages posted to either a Web-based forum at unicyclist.com or a corresponding newsgroup, rec.sport.unicycling.

After nearly two years online, Gilbertson claims more than 1.7 million TinyURLs, which have earned the site more than 21 million hits in the past month alone.

While the service is and will remain free, Gilbertson pledges, he is making some money from advertisements and donations. He hopes to introduce premium services and an enterprise version early in 2004.

Enter the spammers
Users of TinyURL range from discussion group participants to print media outlets to customer service call centers, according to Gilbertson.

Unfortunately, they also include spammers.

"Abuse by spammers is the big problem with TinyURL," Gilbert wrote in an instant-message interview. "In fact, during this interview, I had to disable a TinyURL due to spam."

In the hands of spammers, TinyURL has the potential to sag under enormous demand and attract the vociferous complaints that spam can incite.

Gilbertson says he disables spam-related URLs one by one, following tips sent to an abuse address and notifications by SpamCop, an antispam group.

At five characters following the tinyURL.com domain, TinyURLs are comparatively brief. But they're already one character bigger than they were last week, as Gilbertson had to lengthen the string to accommodate demand.

The five-character string will accommodate 39 million substitutions when certain easily confused characters--the lowercase "L" and the number "1"--are grouped, according to Gilbertson.

In revamping the service, Gilbertson also started assigning TinyURLs at random, rather than sequentially, in response to security concerns about easily guessable URLs.

Gilbertson doubts he will ever run out of TinyURLs, no matter how much demand the site gets.

"All the URLs that Google has indexed will only take up seven characters, so it's possible that they will never get too long," he said.

Short, shorter, shortest
Shorlify, by contrast, is aiming for catchy, phonetically friendly URLs that are easier to remember, rather than ones that are merely short.

For the RealNames story linked to above, located at http://news.com.com/2100-1023-911942.html, Shorlify gives the alternate address http://shorl.com/huprufruvaseke. TinyURL, by contrast, addresses it .

Make A Shorter Link, however, declined to shorten the URL further.

"URL already short," the site says. "If we made you a shorter link it would be longer or about the same length, so we're not going to bother."

Make A Shorter Link predates TinyURL by nearly a year--its earliest link is dated July 9, 2001.

Founder Matthew Hunt said it originated also from concerns about posting URLs to newsgroup discussions, and that the total number of links numbered just over 450,000.

Hunt doesn't have any pecuniary ambitions, though.

"I'm happy to subsidize it as a free service for as long as people use it," he said. "The other contributors are of like mind, freely providing time and resources to keep it all going."