He graduated in 1992 from Wayzata High School and worked for a time in the call center for Damark International, a catalog outfit that had an office in Brooklyn Center. Soon, he started his own Internet design and networking company. “As for savings, I had zero and I had no investors,” he said. “I literally started with a $600 computer and an idea. Also, I never owned nor used a computer up until a couple months before I got my business off the ground. I think mine was one of the last generations to graduate high school before the Internet. One of my customers was a local sex shop. After I saw how much traffic they got, I decided to build a free host like Geocities. There were a lot of amateur mom-and-pop porn sites being kicked off of Geocities at the time, so we decided to give them a home in exchange for a small banner spot.”
Things took off from there, and soon Strouse’s various Web domains were listed among the top porn sites. He says things have gotten tougher since then as more porn sites have sprung up on the Net, but he’s still doing well. He won’t discuss numbers—he won’t even give an idea of what his profit margins are in percentage terms—so it’s hard to know just how much of an effect the proliferation of porn has had on his business. GeekTech’s offerings are actually tame, even wholesome, compared to a lot of other sites that feature every possible permutation of every possible perversion one can imagine. Even with all the free, edgy stuff you can find online, Strouse sticks to the mainstream. He sees this as a sound business strategy, despite the claims of proprietors of fetish sites that they attract traffic in droves. “There may be a couple guys out there who want something really odd. Am I going to cater to that to make $200? No. It makes sense to cater to the masses, not the niche. No one will pay more for something weird, no matter how out of the ordinary it may be.”
The timing of Strouse’s entry into the business was perfect because he got in just before massive Internet merchants began launching affiliate systems, and it was becoming big business. Famously, Amazon expanded beyond books to offer all kinds of merchandise through affiliates. And many businesses other than pornographers—mortgage peddlers, multi-level marketers, and prescription drug merchants, for instance—had problems with spam. But porn was especially attractive to fly-by-night spammers because everything was done online—there were no physical orders to fill and the transactions were simple: post the porn, collect a credit-card number, and that’s pretty much it.
Many companies have left the affiliate-business model because of spam problems. “Legitimate companies have had to deal with policing their affiliates,” said Mozena, of CAUCE. For many of them, it was just too much. For others, it has meant instituting complicated and costly procedures to prevent spam. “Amway has extremely draconian penalties” for affiliate spammers, Mozena noted. But online porn is all about generating traffic. Once they are there, and you have their money, the deal is done. Because the system is nearly friction-free, unlike affiliate systems involving a tangible product, and so easy to exploit, it’s almost guaranteed a porn-site operator will have to deal with spammers whether he wants to or not.
Of the half-dozen or so network managers interviewed for this story—all of them active in antispam newsgroups—not a single one agreed to have his or her name used. They fear retaliation from spammers, and with good reason. Several of them said they have been the target of hacking and denial-of-service attacks, which can potentially shut down a whole network. Both Spamhaus and SPEWS have been the target of several such attacks. One might say they invite this bad behavior; like many victims of spam, they occasionally allow their anger to get the better of them, and sometimes make serious accusations based on dubious evidence. All the antispammers interviewed for this story had no problem condemning GeekTech and others without necessarily having irrefutable proof to back up their allegations. The tone of antispam newsgroups, too, tends to the hyperbolic; however righteous their cause, some activists’ scorched-earth approach can lead to inaccurate information being represented as fact, and innocent parties being accused.
For instance, Spamhaus links Strouse’s hosting business, Archer Communications, with an outfit called Python Video—allegedly one of the worst porn spammers on the Net, and listed among Spamhaus’ top ten most prolific spammers. Python has been removed and banned from several ISPs and is unrepentant about its activities. Apparently, someone once sent a mass mailing that linked to both a Python site and a GeekTech site in the same message. That was enough for Spamhaus to list the two companies together in one of its reports. But there is apparently no relationship, real or implied, between the two. Nevertheless, one activist, a network manager for a Minnesota ISP, had conflated the two companies, going so far as to state with certainty that GeekTech, via Archer, hosted some of Python’s sites. It’s not true.
“Spamhaus is a little like the KKK,” says Strouse. “If they don’t like you, you can’t change their mind, no matter what you say. They just want to see you hung by a burning cross no matter what the cost is.” Still, SPEWS and Spamhaus, as well as the antispam newsgroups, do serve a purpose. No single complaint should be taken as gospel, but the totality of the information they keep can lead to some useful conclusions. GeekTech and its many Web sites have been the subject of hundreds if not thousands of complaints in antispam newsgroups over the years. Most of them are related to affiliate spammers, and while GeekTech apparently has pulled the plug on many advertised Web pages, some affiliates’ accounts are still active despite complaints being sent to GeekTech. Strouse claimed that most of those complaints are “joe jobs”—lingo for the practice of sending out spam that appears to be from someone else in order to deluge them with the inevitable flood of complaints. Fake spam, in other words. Strouse said he’s often the target of such attacks from affiliates he’s booted for spamming, and it seems possible, given the frequency with which such attacks occur. But the huge number of complaints, and the fact that many complained-about spams continue to link to live Web pages on GeekTech’s network, suggests that many complaints legitimately target active GeekTech affiliates and, by extension, GeekTech itself.
Other spams posted in the newsgroups seem to have come directly from GeekTech’s servers. There aren’t nearly as many of these, but there are enough to raise the question of whether GeekTech has not only hosted affiliate spammers, but has occasionally spammed itself. “Look at the headers, it’s right there,” said one network manager, pointing out a spam that was posted in an antispam newsgroup. The recipient who posted it is himself a network administrator. He is a particularly vehement spam opponent, having posted thousands of spam complaints over several years.