Man arrested in domain deceit

Federal agents arrest a man for allegedly creating misleading domain names to deceive children and direct them to pornographic Web sites.

Dawn Kawamoto Former Staff writer, CNET News
Dawn Kawamoto covered enterprise security and financial news relating to technology for CNET News.
Dawn Kawamoto
3 min read
Federal law enforcement officers arrested a man Wednesday for allegedly creating misleading domain names to deceive children and direct them to pornographic Web sites.

John Zuccarini's arrest marks the first to be made under the Truth in Domain Names Act, which took effect in April and prohibits people from creating misleading domain names as a means to deceive children into viewing content that's harmful to minors, or tricking adults into clicking on obscene Web sites.

"Zuccarini has been notorious for years, so to think he would finally get busted for this is kind of like seeing the end of the line for (computer hackers Kevin) Mitnick or (Kevin) Poulson," said Eric Goldman, an assistant professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee.

The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, James Comey, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service arrested Zuccarini on charges of creating at least 3,000 misleading domain names, such as dinseyland.com, that would result in Internet users accessing advertising Web sites. These Web sites, some of which were pornographic, would pay Zuccarini a total of as much as $1 million a year for bringing viewers to their sites, federal prosecutors said.

Also, once users were at the Web sites, they could not exit the page by clicking on the "close" button at the bottom of the computer screen, prosecutors said. Instead, the "close" button would open up other Web pages--a move known as "mouse trapping."

"The defendant is accused of taking advantage of children's common mistakes, and using that to profit by leading them by the hand into the seediest and most repugnant corners of cyberspace. His alleged actions are not clever but criminal," Comey said in a statement.

Last year, a federal court ordered Zuccarini to stop deluging Internet users with porn and gambling pop-up ads when they mistyped a Web address. And in 2001, the Federal Trade Commission sued Zuccarini on similar charges. The courts ordered him to give back $1.8 million in "ill-gotten gains" and prohibited him from participating in Internet advertising affiliate programs.

If convicted of violating the Truth in Domain Names Act, Zuccarini could face up to four years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Despite Zuccarini's past, Goldman and other Internet law experts say that a conviction under the new act could run into trouble, based on free-speech claims.

"I think millions of Internet surfers may cheer at the thought of Zuccarini receiving some rough justice. However, the idea of putting someone in jail based on their choice of domain names should make us all concerned. I could see some First Amendment problems with this prosecution, because fundamentally it criminalizes Internet speech, and the courts have not been kind to Congress' attempts to do that in the past."

Doug Isenberg, editor and publisher of GigaLaw.com and an Atlanta attorney who specializes in Internet law, agreed.

"The law itself is a bit unclear about using a misleading domain name," Isenberg said. "While Zuccarini allegedly engaged in misleading activities, it's not clear what a misleading domain name is...and a law that is vague is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. I would not be surprised if he challenges the law as vague and, therefore, unconstitutional."

And anytime a new law is challenged in the courts for the first time, it gives an indication of the breadth or limits of the law itself, Isenberg said.

He added: "Depending on how this arrest plays out, it will ultimately tell us about the strength, or weakness, in the Truth in Domain Names act."

CNET News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.