How Asian American and other online ethnic media are targeted by identity stealers and traffic poachers, and what can be done about it
By Stewart David Ikeda
A funny thing happens on the way to work. You exit the congested freeway, park in the normal spot and stop at the corner Starbucks as usual. But on this morning, the ever-cheery counterpeople regard you coldly, disapprovingly, with whispers and sidelong glances, and neglect to leave room in your venti for milk. Puzzled, you walk the last block to your workplace only to discover that where the door and friendly building guard had been are a velvet curtain, a ticket-taker, and a gaudy marquee reading “EXOTIC NUDE GIRLS XXX!” By the door is a rack of cheap, glossy magazines — Hot Studz or Girlz Who Do IT. The face and bare body of the cover model are immediately and intimately familiar to you because — you realize, to your horror — it is you!
No, it’s not some hidden dorm-room camera gotcha. Rather, it’s business-as-usual when ethnic media and pornography publishing meet on the WWW. Early in the dot-com boom, I attended a professional conference on multicultural marketing online in Florida. The host speaker was a charismatic, tech-savvy African-American Christian minister who delivered in only partial jest what proved the most helpful advice in my Web career. As I’ve paraphrased it to every web client or student since: “To learn really effective online marketing, you need only to do lots of porn surfing.” The audience twittered, but he insisted soberly, “No, I’m serious. Hunker down and study the porn industry, because it is leading the way.”
As any media historian worth his/her salt will tell you, pornographers have always been in the vanguard innovating any new medium, from cuneiform stone tables to moving pictures to Betamax to interactive CD-ROM. Anyone who has so much as used email obviously grasps the pervasive nature of the online adult industry, and the usual, gross spam and pop-ups are compounded for identity groups such as Asian Americans, considered at once desirable, targetable ethnic niche markets on one hand, and hotly desired, packageable ethnic fetish products on the other.
Through a pesky practice we can think of as “hack-marketing,” virtually every popular Asian-American site I know has spawned copycats by “Yellow Fever” pornographers luring “Asianphiliacs” with Orientalist stereotypes of exotic sexuality, “mail order brides” or certain strains of international prostitution. Employed by the largest, most-sophisticated (and least reputable) purveyors of adult fare, a kind of grand-scale “identity theft” routinely seeks to steals our traffic, our advertising dollars, even our names. It can strike online organizations at any time, has possibly already happned to you without your knowledge, and is perfectly legal.
Squatters, Satirists, and Spoofs
Online, as in real estate, address is everything. Hence, “domain squatting”: the practice of securing a potentially valuable web address, perhaps affiliated with a name or brand, usually to extort money from someone who will eventually want it. However, sites may be developed to divert traffic from one destination to another. Skeletal sites such as microsodt.com, for example, bank on human error — your clumsy typing, “d’s” proximity to the “f” key. Similarly, by a simple sleight-of-hand with the domain extension, a cheesy, half-baked (and now-defunct) Asian “news” site 80-20initiative.com hoped to waylay visitors to 80-20initiative.net, a reputable Asian American PAC and equal rights advocacy group. Perhaps the most famous example of ingenious extension hijacking is the porn site www.whitehouse.com.
(How, you may ask, do politicians abide such a thing without regulation? Well, beyond the free speech issues, the fact is that political folk themselves are enthusiastic practitioners of spoofing strategies in creating attack sites. The National Republican Senatorial Committee ensnared hapless citizens in bradburyontaxes.com and washingtonwellstone.com. Democrat Bill Richardson’s johnsanchezdidnotshowupforwork.com at least signals its satirical nature in the URL.)
In these examples, users quickly see a wrong turn has been taken, but some spoofs are thematically close enough to a victim site to fool the visitor. iMinorities.com, corporate site for a respected publisher of EEO and careers information, was spoofed by iMinoritiesnetwork.com, a fly-by-night “demo site” hawking similar-sounding but phony “online diversity solutions,” seminars and banners, and services by the firm hosting the site.
Such spoofs may be benign or malicious, comical or infuriating, but they are always inconvenient to the “victims” and often avoidable. Domain shopping, I often have to fight with small business and NPO clients’ impulses to “fast, cheap, and out of control” site-building without considering long-term ramifications to their mission and reputation. Particularly vulnerable are nonprofits — earnest “dot-org kind of people” guarded with their expenditures, afraid any hint of “dot-commercialism” may besmirch their NPO status. However, registering asianwomenstickingtogether.org, for example, without coughing up for the .com and .net versions at least is virtually begging someone to steal your traffic and get rich exploiting Asian women. Fortunately, competition has driven the domain registration and parking costs way down. C|Net routinely reviews reputable firms offering bare-bones services for next to free.
Google-Bombs and Meta-Tag Games
On a more sophisticated, programming level, spoofers skillfully build dummy Web pages in formats optimized to manipulate search engine technologies, using well-placed keywords in the code, body-text, filename and “brand” relevant to ethnic interests. Batches of terms in special webpage codes called “meta-tags” may include names of reputable organizations, even article text “scraped” directly from real sites. Interspersed with long strings of common “smut keywords,” these can be comically absurd:
“Hot sex Wen Ho Lee oriental babes screw Asian Pacific Politics free Norman Mineta hardcore…” etc.
While not easily visible to users, meta-tags are read by browsers and search engines to guess the nature of your site, publish descriptions of it, weight search rankings, etc., as in this censored result from Googling my site, “Asian-American Village“:
C— In C–t Asian Hardcore Sex Pic
Few would click through to this artless example (and the site can keep that particular traffic with my compliments). However, more care went into spoofing the Bay Area newspaper AsianWeek. “AsianWeek” appears in the filename, a standard-looking copyright line, and multiple links to another porn domain; and nothing immediately offends in the file’s description.
This repetitive linking of phrases is driven by a concept called “Google-bombing”. One known component of Google’s “secret formula” is to weight rankings based on the number of times and places a link to your URL uses the same keywords. Here, the planner hopes to make the phrase “AsianWeek” seem prominently connected to “Mrchewsasianbeaver.com“.
Despite my earlier analogy to “identity-theft,” Google-bombing equally applies to “idea-theft”. Whole concepts, not just names, can be “poached”. Using such tools as Overture, hack marketers can infer what keyword combinations (“Asian+American,” “Asian+politics,” etc.) are most frequently searched at major engines, then churn out pages to try to capture this traffic. This producer of gay and military-themed porn creates networks of pages that repetitively inter-link concepts such as: Gays in the Military | should homosexuals be admitted into the military #67 | sexual harassment in the military #23 | naked australian sports men and military guys #95 | gay military videos #94. Similarly, foreign bride-traffickers may build whole directories of reference links to legitimate articles about, say, traditional arranged marriages and biographies of 19th century picture brides, in which to bury just one or two of their own links.
As these show, “hack marketing” is hardly limited to targeting Asians or ethnic minorities or women. But it is in the deep nature of human sexual urge that categorization — especially based on stereotyped identity — is at the root of so many fetishes, fantasies and taboos. As with nurse and fireman fantasies, sites parse out Latinas, Asians, Natives, Blacks, Arabs in easy to digest “channels”. Interracial sex sites (which spoof substantive multicultural/multiracial publications like Interracial Voice and Mavin) branch out to subcategories by various coupling combinations. There are ever more minute, ethnic-specific categories — just Filipinas or just Indians; and even genre porn specifically re-enacting fantasies of ’70s-era U.S. soldiers abusing Vietnamese women, “Cowboys doing Indians,” and so forth.
Without judging whatever floats anyone’s particular boat, my point is: as minority ethnic identities are easily targeted for objectification, so too are the media that represent them, and no medium makes it easier to target, locate, lure, track, parse, categorize and sell us than the Web and its database technologies. Thus, it behooves a site planner to become skilled in basic coding and best design practices to defend against traffic poaching and safeguard one’s brand and message.
Most damaging of all is to allow your domain registration to expire, which is easier to do than you might think. If you initially registered for two years, contact or credit card information on file at a service provider may have changed. Or, say the IT person responsible for record-keeping has left the organization, or is on extended leave or vacation at renewal time. Or, you decided to reposition your business on a new domain. In any case, lapsed registration can be devastating to your organizational mission.
A multicultural publisher I worked with had dutifully parked an old site for years after the business was renamed, reincorporated, rebranded and relaunched on a highly successful new domain. Because the old domain was reviewed in thousands of sites and offline resources (many also outdated), traffic continued to follow paths beyond the company’s control despite efforts to widely announce the changes. When the renewal lapsed in a brief confusion of changing staff, service providers and offices, a lurking pornographer snapped up the domain to sell “minority porn,” as I belatedly learned from an angry editor who replied to an outreach email by accusing us of “pushing filth”. The IT, PR and Legal departments spent a lot of time trying to correct the problem and restore our reputation, but already many rumors had circulated and unsuspecting visitors seeking our services were lost to us for good. In this situation, repeat visitors, referrals from friendly sites that “vouched for you,” or those following older materials you produced will feel betrayed and blame you, and so they should.
It would be hard (not impossible) to try this on a Disney. But your pockets and my pockets are not so deep; our best defense is therefore prevention. Web planners should advance-register domains for as long as budgets allow, and use a well-regarded hosting company whose bundled services include automatic domain re-registration for the life of the contract; pre-paying for long-term services can also lower overall hosting costs.
Ethnic ‘Net Working
But finally, any lone webmaster’s capacity to combat legions of hack marketers armed with advanced technology is limited, while individual legal responses are at best expensive Band-Aids on ever-multiplying wounds. And ethnic media should be particularly wary of seeking remedies that smack of censorship. Lessons from blogspace show that the most effective ways to “hack back” must be through community, not individual actions.
Enacting cooperative link-trades to raise and share traffic even among “competitors” can help “steal back community issues” through what Microcontentnews.com refers to as “Justice Bombs”. One woman distressed by the proliferation of “Daniel Pearl videos” links enlisted an army of blogger chums to capture 5 of the top 10 Google spots for the popular phrase, and unsuspecting voyeurs clicked through to a scathing invitation to commit suicide. Collective action in a “Mail Order Bride” Justice Bomb could as easily turbo-charge efforts by such community activists as Kristina Wong, whose Bigbadchinesemama.com aims to steal “geisha brokers'” traffic with a fake (and brilliantly erection-withering) fetish porn and mail-order bride site.
Less technically, media can alert colleagues and competitors when they discover spoofs, and help rain complaints down on the hosting firms. If you intend to get out of the business and let your domain expire, consider “bequeathing it” to another in-community publisher who might keep the value you built “in the family”. A mere $30 a year could have bailed out and preserved HotPopTV.com, when it couldn’t make a go of a legitimate pay-per-view webcast business. Instead, fans found HotPop’s terrific, original all-Asian American webcast TV series Karaoke Nights abruptly replaced by a porn site.
The example of Justice Bombing (cooperatively deploying identical links across many domains to support an individual compatriot) is a clear and fitting metaphor for how in-community ethnic media can win against big hack marketers. For, its success depends, very literally, upon harnessing the power of diversity and community-coalition.
And isn’t that, after all, what “ethnic media’s” all about?
This commentary was originally delivered as a live presentation in a slightly different version at the Race in Digital Space 2.0 conference, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and published in an extended illustration version on the sdikeda.com website.