Md. ballet troupe tangled in Web's stickier strands

Abandoned address snapped up for porn

November 16, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

It's the time of year when many who appreciate the beauty of a well-turned pirouette make plans to see the holiday favorite The Nutcracker. But some who recently searched the Internet for details on the Ballet Theatre of Maryland's production of the classic did not find ticket information.

Instead, they found the homepage for "Euro Teen Sluts."

The Ballet Theatre of Maryland, an Annapolis-based troupe known for its elegant performances, is one of latest victims of a national phenomenon known as "cybersquatting."

Hundreds of individuals, corporations, churches and even an Idaho town have found themselves red-faced after discovering that their expired Internet domain names have become bulletin boards for pornography, according to Internet experts and news reports.

The victims then find their domain names held hostage by online opportunists seeking to sell the Internet addresses back to them for a profit.

"It's creepy and disturbing that someone would think to do something like this to an organization, " said Mary Kaiser, ballet lover and former administrative assistant for the Ballet Theatre of Maryland. "It's like extortion."

"This is the downside of the Internet world," Henry Holth, executive director of the theater, said.

The stage for the Internet misadventure was set last year, when the troupe celebrated its 20th anniversary and changed its name from the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis to the Ballet Theatre of Maryland.

The theater - a resident company at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts - abandoned www.btaballet.org, the Web site it had used since 1999, and set up shop at a new address, www.btmballet.org.

Thinking it no longer needed the old site, the theater let the registration lapse last summer, about the time it began gearing up for The Nutcracker, its holiday money maker.

But recently ballet enthusiasts, eager to take their children to the show and seeking to buy tickets online, accessed the theater's Web site through the Maryland Hall homepage and encountered the opening screen for a pornographic site.

The Web page includes a link stating that the domain name btaballet.org is for sale.

Warned, not warned

Randall Pigott, chief operation officer of Riva.Net, the Annapolis-based Internet service provider that maintains the theater's Web site, said his company warned ballet board members not to abandon their former Web site.

But Sandra Murray, president of the ballet theater's board of directors, said she was unaware of any such warning, adding, "If we had known, we would have kept the site."

Before the registration lapsed this summer, the ballet theater could have renewed its claim to the address for $35.

The domain's new owner proclaims on the site that any offer for the name's rights of less than $550 "will be ignored."

About a month ago, ballet officials said, fans alerted the theater of the problem, and the troupe contacted the Maryland Hall webmaster and others with links to the ballet theater site to update them with its new address: www.btmballet.org.

Nude celebrities

But patrons unaware of the one-letter change in the Web site might still have the old site bookmarked on their computer, said Tom Fridrich, Maryland Hall director of facilities.

Recently, any patrons leaving the theater's abandoned Web site would see another site pop up promising nude pictures of celebrities, followed by a series of links to additional pornographic sites.

"It's insulting to the professional dancers, the caliber they are," said Murray, the board president.

Janet Morgan, a board member, added: "My first reaction was that we needed to get that [old site] back and shut it down."

Murray said the theater has reported the problem to the state attorney general's office's white-collar crime unit, and will pursue any legal remedies at its disposal.

But their options seem limited - Internet registration records show that the rights to the address are legally owned by Kramarevskaya Ulitza, who lives in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

"It's a sad situation," Murray said.

But it is not an uncommon one, judging by news accounts.

In June, government officials in rural Karnes County, Texas, population 15,000, were shocked to learn that the county's homepage had been snatched up by a "cybersquatter" in Armenia to lead visitors to a porn site.

The same thing happened to the Idaho town of Caldwell.

In September, the Wyndmoor, Pa.-based newspaper Irish Edition was startled to learn that it had inadvertently let its domain registration lapse and that its former address had become a porn site.

RussX Casting Corp., a Russian company teamed with an organization called "eee X Hosting" in California, reportedly bought up expired domain names that belonged to churches - and filled them with porn.

Just capitalism

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