The central figures in the alleged Clinton sex scandal are becoming hot property on the Net.
Once considered private figures, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp now have Web sites dedicated to them, complete with pictures and personal details.
Less than a week after the story broke, a site purporting to be Lewinski's personal Web page was uncovered. An America Online spokeswoman said that the site has since been removed because it appeared to be a hoax.
At the same time, a separate unofficial Linda Tripp site is up and running. In addition, sites referencing Lewinsky, the intern at the center of the scandal, appear to be in hot demand. Both "lewinsky.com" and "monicalewinsky.com" are now the property of separate Internet registration services, which gobble up hot names and then sell them at inflated prices.
The phenomenon is by no means new. Web sites falsely claiming to have originated by Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates and AOL head Steve Case are almost a regular occurrence on the Net. Shortly after Timothy McVeigh was arrested in April 1995 for the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, an AOL profile popped up that claimed to originate from the convicted terrorist. And after 39 members of a cult committed suicide in Southern California, Web sites bearing the Heaven's Gate name sprang up and falsely claimed affiliation.
"I think it's almost a kind of culture hacking to retaliate against the media's feeding frenzy," said Dave Cassel, editor of the AOL Watch newsletter. He said he had heard reports of a major news organization being fooled by the McVeigh reference and said such instances spur on hoaxes. "When an individual can fool a major news organization, there's a giddy thrill."
Cassel said the phenomenon isn't limited to AOL, but added that the ability to create pseudonymous screen names and post Web pages that don't carry a subscriber's legal name make the online service especially vulnerable to hoaxes. AOL's policy guidelines prohibit using an account to impersonate an individual. AOL spokeswoman Ann Brackbill said the company generally lets first-time offenders off with a warning.
Due to a provision in the Communications Decency Act that was upheld, individuals whose identities have been misrepresented are generally barred from suing service providers, said Ian Ballon, an Internet attorney at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner. Still, he added, "depending on what state's laws apply--which is always an interesting question in Internet cases--presumably the individual would have certain rights."
He said most states have publicity and privacy laws that would apply, but added that sites that merely parody, without purporting to belong to an individual, would likely be considered protected speech under the Constitution.