Each of the offices in the ten-story Ceresota Building on Fifth Street is, like a lot of offices these days, an island unto itself. Each floor of the converted flour mill holds three tenants at most. Some, like the Cooper Law Firm, take up an entire story. So despite the common first-floor cafeteria, interoffice communication seems limited mostly to polite nods in the elevator. There hasn’t been much gossip about the fifth floor, which is the world headquarters of a business that goes by dozens of names but whose office window reads “GeekTech, Inc.”
Most people in the building assume the company is involved in some kind of software development; others know the partial truth that it’s one of the few dot-coms to have survived the bust. A few of them know the full truth: that GeekTech is an Internet porn outfit. Those who know don’t seem particularly bothered by it, even when they hear that GeekTech may be one of the largest purveyors of online pornography in the country.
GeekTech’s office looks like any other, with Fortune and Time magazines on the lobby table. Employees seem friendly enough, but keep to themselves. The place is not crawling with scantily clad, silicone-injected porn stars; GeekTech’s business is all virtual.
But when I mention that the company has been accused of being a chronic source of spam, the neighbors become agitated. Sue, an office assistant next door at Standard Parking, had no idea what GeekTech did. “They’re nice,” she said. When I told her they publish pornography, she shrugged. Whatever. But when I mentioned the possibility that GeekTech’s business may be responsible for a considerable amount of spam, she grimaced and made clawing motions, as if scratching the eyes out of whoever is responsible for infecting her email inbox with a plague of sleazy scams.
Her ire may be well placed. Because of the way GeekTech and many other online pornographers do business, they frequently become conduits for spam, whether they plan it that way or not. Such companies invite anybody with the time and interest to act as an independent marketer for them—sending traffic to paid porn sites in exchange for a piece of the action. Many so-called “affiliates” do this legitimately, by linking from their own Web pages, for example. But many also do it by sending thousands, often millions of emails.
Unsolicited commercial email has reached a critical mass. The problem has become so bad that Congress recently passed a law restricting it (though it is largely symbolic and mostly toothless), and people like Bill Gates are investing heavily in technology meant to stem the deluge. Companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and America Online have filed lawsuits against dozens of alleged spammers. Internet service providers say they are so overwhelmed with spam that they have to siphon money and personnel away from customer service and toward making sure their customers don’t get so much spam that they abandon the Internet altogether.
All spam is annoying, but some is truly offensive. Few people want to launch their email program at work, only to have a large sexually explicit image fill their screen. And most parents would prefer that their kids not be exposed to advertisements for “farmer’s daughter gone wild!”
One of GeekTech’s more successful properties is a core site called Porn City. Mike Strouse, otherwise known as GeekTech’s brash young owner, calls himself its mayor.
Porn City opened for business in 1996. It claimed to be the “first free adult host.” It was right around that time that online pornography became a lucrative business and the free-host business model became common. Not coincidentally, it was also around then that porn spam started to become a serious problem. Since then, similar business schemes have proliferated, along with the spam that inevitably is a part of the formula.
GeekTech’s business works like this: Anybody with an Internet connection, the right software, and a rudimentary knowledge of Web publishing can become a “host” on any one of several sites run by GeekTech. Or, if they’re especially ambitious, they can set up their own independent site. Smaller host operations can get free Web space from GeekTech in exchange for a promise to direct any traffic they attract to the company’s pay sites. Bigger operations usually run their own sites on the servers of their own Internet service provider, and they may act as affiliates for any number of pay-for-porn outfits. These larger hosts tend to be sites that offer hundreds of pages of free pornography, heavily mined with ads and links to the pay sites.
The upside for GeekTech is obvious: the more independent operators that link to GeekTech’s sites, the more paying customers GeekTech signs up. The Web is rife with such “affiliates,” who in essence act as marketers for companies like GeekTech, which provide the actual material. GeekTech gives its affiliates some pictures to lure users. Affiliates direct the users to one of GeekTech’s big pay pornography sites, such as sushichicks.com (Asian women), babeswithboners.com (pre-operative transsexuals), or legsandhose.com (stockings). For every Web surfer who clicks through to a GeekTech pay site and enters his credit card number, the host of the affiliate site gets a check—commonly about $35, though different programs pay different amounts. The link on the affiliate’s Web page to the pay sites contains a code, which is how affiliates are identified and paid.
That’s where the problem comes in. Most spam that advertises Web sites includes a link that contains this code, usually at the end of a long URL. That link leads users to the pay-porn site, and the code tells the owner of the site which affiliate sent the user there. If the user signs up for the site, the affiliate gets a cut of the first month’s payment from the new customer. What could be easier?