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Misleading Domain Name

Misleading Domain Names on the Internet - 18 U.S. Code § 2252B

Since the Internet was created, one of the biggest public concerns has been its lack of regulation and how easily it can be used to access harmful materials or expose the young to harmful materials. 

To that end, it is a federal crime to knowingly create or use a misleading Internet domain name to trick people into viewing obscene or harmful content. This statute is embodied in 18 U.S.C. 2252B. If convicted of a crime under this law, you could face up to 10 years in federal prison, depending on the circumstances.

Misleading Domain Names on the Internet - 18 U.S. Code § 2252B
It's a federal crime to use a misleading domain name to trick people into viewing obscene content.

18 U.S.C. 2252B says, “(a) Whoever knowingly uses a misleading domain name on the Internet with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

(b) Whoever knowingly uses a misleading domain name on the Internet with the intent to deceive a minor into viewing material that is harmful to minors on the Internet shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.

(c) For the purposes of this section, a domain name that includes a word or words to indicate the sexual content of the site, such as “sex” or “porn,” is not misleading.

(d) For the purposes of this section, the term “material that is harmful to minors” means any communication, consisting of nudity, sex, or excretion, that, taken as a whole and with reference to its context—

(1) predominantly appeals to a prurient interest of minors, 
(2) is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is suitable material for minors and
(3) lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

(e) For the purposes of subsection (d), the term “sex” means acts of masturbation, sexual intercourse, or physical [1] contact with a person's genitals or the condition of human male or female genitals when in a state of sexual stimulation or arousal.”

What Are the Origins of the Law?

Title 18 U.S.C. 2252B was codified as part of the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act of 2003. This is a sweeping set of regulations intended to enhance the protection of children against sexual exploitation. 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Internet rapidly became an intrinsic part of everyday life. As the digital world grew, so did the challenges associated with regulating it, particularly protecting minors from explicit content. 

Congress passed the PROTECT Act to address the new digital technologies specifically, adding new verbiage to existing child pornography laws.

What Does the Law Say?

18 U.S.C. 2252B criminalizes using a misleading domain name to deceive people about the obscene or harmful nature of the content on that domain. 

Misleading domain names are those intentionally designed to deceive others. These are not accidental misspellings or honest mistakes but deliberate attempts to misdirect internet users. 

Specifically, this statute outlaws two behaviors related to misleading domain names:

  • Using a misleading domain name to deceive anyone (regardless of age) into viewing obscene content and
  • Using a misleading domain name to deceive minors into viewing content deemed harmful to minors.

Examples of violations of this law might include:

  • Setting up a pornographic website under a domain name that suggests a different type of content.
  • Registering a misleading domain name and redirecting it to harmful sexual content or
  • Hijacking someone's domain to point it to your pornographic website.

Generally speaking, to avoid prosecution under this law, a person wishing to publish obscene material must use a domain name indicating the kind of content expected on that domain. For this reason, section 2252B states explicitly that the use of the words "sex" and "porn" on pornographic domains is not considered misleading.

For purposes of this law, "material harmful to minors" refers to content depicting "sex, nudity, or excretion" that has no literary, scientific, or political value, is intended to play on the "prurient interest" of minors, and is otherwise considered by the public to be patently offensive and inappropriate for minors to view.

To secure a conviction under this law, the prosecution must prove several elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • You used a domain name in a way that misdirected users as to the nature of the content it was pointing to,
  • The content in question was obscene or harmful to minors and
  • You did so knowingly and willingly. 

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: Todd creates a website named "" However, the site hosts explicit adult content instead of offering children's games as the domain name suggests. Todd can be charged under 18 U.S.C. 2252B.

EXAMPLE 2: Frieda registers the domain name "," intending to attract traffic from users seeking to download movies for free. 

However, when users visit the site, they're presented with a platform selling movie memorabilia, not offering free movie downloads as the domain name suggests. While Frieda's domain name is misleading, she would not be charged under U.S.C. 2252B because the misdirected content could not be considered obscene or harmful to minors.

What Are the Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 110, Sexual Exploitation and Other Abuse of Children, has numerous federal laws related to section 2252B, misleading domain names on the Internet, including the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 2251 - Sexual exploitation of children,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2251 - Selling or buying of children,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2252 - Certain activities relating to material involving the sexual exploitation of minors,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2252A - Certain activities relating to material constituting or containing child pornography,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2252C - Misleading words or digital images on the Internet,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2253 - Criminal forfeiture,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2254. Civil forfeiture,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2255 - Civil remedy for personal injuries,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2256 - Definitions for chapter,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2257 - Record keeping requirements,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2257A - Record keeping requirements for simulated sexual conduct,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2258 - Failure to report child abuse,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2258A - Reporting requirements of providers,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2258B - Limited liability for providers or domain name registrars,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2258C - Use to combat child pornography of technical elements relating to reports made to the CyberTipline,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2258D - Limited liability for NCMEC,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2258E – Definitions,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2259 - Mandatory restitution,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2259A - Assessments in child pornography cases,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2259B - Child pornography victims reserve,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2260 - Production of sexually explicit depictions of a minor for importation into the United States,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2260A - Penalties for registered sex offenders.

What Are the Penalties for a Conviction?

If you're convicted of using a misleading domain name to direct users (of any age) to obscene material, you could be fined up to $250,000 and serve up to 2 years in prison.

If you're convicted of targeting minors with your misleading domain name to expose them to material harmful to minors, you could be fined up to $250,000 and serve up to 10 years in prison.

What Are the Common Defenses?

Despite the seriousness of these offenses, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney may be able to employ several defense strategies based on the circumstances. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of Knowledge: You were unaware of the domain name's deceptive nature or harmful content.
  • Lack of Control: You did not have control or ownership of the domain name. For example, someone pointed a domain name you did not own to your pornographic site, or someone gained control of your domain and pointed it to their harmful site.
  • The Material Was Not Obscene nor Harmful: This defense challenges the presumptions and ambiguity of what may be considered "obscene."

Contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. We represent clients throughout the United States. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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