How violent porn sites manage to hide information that should be public

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Researcher Garth Bruen long has investigated the seamier corners of the Internet, but even he was shocked to discover Rapetube.org, a site urging users to share what it called “fantasy” videos of sexual attacks.

Bruen gradually discovered dozens of similar sites offering disturbing variations — attacks on drunken women, on lesbians, on schoolgirls — to anyone with a credit card. Some made clear that the clips were fictional, but other sites had the word “real” in their titles. At least a few touted videos that he feared might show actual crimes.

Sickened, Bruen tried to determine who operated the sites, a first step toward possibly having them shut down. But he quickly hit a wall: The contact information listed for Web sites increasingly is fictitious or intentionally masked by “privacy protection services” that offer ways around the transparency requirements built into the Internet for decades.

That is especially true for sites offering illicit or controversial content, studies have found. As a result, although governments have increasingly powerful tools for tracking individual behavior on the Internet, it’s harder than ever for private citizens to learn who is responsible for online content, no matter how objectionable.

To Bruen, this is the dark side of Internet privacy.

“That’s not privacy. That’s secrecy,” said Bruen, 42, a security fellow at the Digital Citizens Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group that combats online crime. “That’s corporate secrecy.”

The desire for sunshine is at odds with the libertarian ethos of cyberspace, where free speech often has been understood to include the freedom to share content anonymously. Bruen seeks a finer line that, while shielding personal conversations and other private behavior, would demand those selling content to accept a measure of accountability by making their identities known.

That long has been required by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a California-based nonprofit group that, under contract with the U.S. Commerce Department, has broad authority over the issuing of Web addresses worldwide. The group, typically called by its acronym, ICANN, requires that site operators provide “accurate and reliable contact details” but has struggled to enforce compliance amid the transnational lawlessness of cyberspace.

An ICANN study released in September found massive problems with contact information throughout the Internet. Among “adult” Web sites, nearly half used services to mask the identities of site operators or listed no contact number at all. When investigators attempted to reach site operators whose numbers were listed, the effort was successful for less than 6 percent of the “adult” sites surveyed.

“In principle, the information is supposed to be accurate,” said Stephen D. Crocker, chairman of ICANN’s board. Yet he acknowledged that it often is not, with the “dark corners” of the Internet most resistant to efforts at accountability.

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