What If: TinyURL Sold to a Porn Company

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Christina Ricci

Disclaimer: TinyURL has never been rumored to be sold, especially to a smut website. I use TinyURL in the title because it's the most well-known URL-shortener on the internet. It's used by Twitter and, to my knowledge, it was the first service of its kind.

I've been thinking quite a bit about URL-minifying services lately. Let me point out a few obvious facts about URL-minifying services:

  • Due to Twitter's growing popularity, these services are becoming more important...
  • ...and are popping up all over the place.
  • They're of great convenience when trying to cut down on the number of characters in a large string.
  • The internet is highly invested in them already.

So these services should be considered great, right? Wrong. These services scare the hell out of me...and should scare you too.

Imagine a URL-minifying service going down. Even if it were only for a few minutes, sites all over the internet would be loaded with broken links and frustrated users. What would be worse than a URL-minifying site going down? A URL-shortening site being purchased by a porn company. What a disaster that would be. And the idea of this happening isn't that far out. It takes very little effort to create a URL-shortening service.

Imagine that you created a URL-minifying service, if gained some popularity (Twitter being the ultimate popularity), and you get approached by Larry Flynt. Mr. Flynt will give you $3 million for the keys to your URL-minifying castle. Tell me you wouldn't take the money and run.

Imagine now that Mr. Flynt replaced all correct link redirects with the most disgusting pornographic links out there. You're at work and click on a link...WHOA! You're sitting around the computer with friends, click a link and....WHOA! You're showing your mother-in-law the present you want to get your wife for her birthday and...WHOA! GROSS!

What's stopping this scenario? Nothing. Nada. TinyURL, Bit.Ly, U.Nu, Tiny.CC, or any other service could go down or sell out in a heartbeat. If I were Twitter's creator, my first order of business would be immediately creating my own URL-minifying service. These services hold much more power than we think.

What do you think? Am I overreacting? Have I hit it on the head? Please share your thoughts!

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Discussion

  1. Eventhough I share your concerns, I still think that it’s not gonna be the end of the world. Porn pops up everywhere – unfortunately.

  2. I think it would hold much power if there was only one service or one dominant service, but it’s so spread that they have no control at all, maybe some marketing studio or statistics, but nothing more.

    I can’t understand why Google haven’t made their own url shortening service their’re always on the middle of everything.

  3. While I can see this as a a possibility, I don’t see it as a likely one. Neither of us has any data to back these ideas, or at least I don’t.

    However, the first-mentioned scenario (shorteners going down) has happened at least a few times in recent memory and I certainly foresee it being a major problem if their use continues to escalate. How do they make money, even? Simply by collecting data, I have to assume. What motivation do they have to scale up, though? I wouldn’t use them myself so much if they crammed ads in around my content. They all do straight redirection.

    I do agree Twitter and similar services should have their own built-in shorteners if they’re going to count URL characters against a limit.

  4. Scares me too… That’s why we should all be using http://www.longurlplease.com/

    Btw, I don’t think Twitter is using TinyURL anymore.. I believe they converted to bit.ly a while back.

  5. Hi David,

    If I were Twitter’s creator, my first
    order of business would be immediately
    creating my own URL-minifying service.

    Agree completely with this statement of yours. We cannot deny with the side effects of url shorteners that you mentioned.
    Certainly twitter should have created its own shortening service. That would be great.

    Cheers!!!

  6. I just can’t believe you used “disgusting” to describe porn.

  7. While you are right that nobody can stop that from happening, if people were thinking like this, nothing from all these great apps that we see everyday would have seen the day of the light. Do you know who’s gonna have access to your personal info in facebook in 10 years from now? No. What about your hosting company? Any idea who’s gonna run it in 5 years from now? No.

    It’s an unstable environment that we accepted and use every day. There’s always a dark side in everything “net”. Isn’t?

  8. @André: That’s subjective — porn can be man things. :)

  9. This is why, when I created a web app of my own that syncs with twitter, I built my own URL shortener. Granted my domain isn’t as short as u.nu, but at 9 characters plus a hittle hash string, it’s not bad – and at least I know that URLs created for my app aren’t being redirected through some unknowable 3rd party.

    There are much scarier things out there on the net, but you’re right – this one deserves contemplation

    If I was buying out a redirection service, I wouldn’t throw porn at all my users. A smart businessman would redirect links with affiliate IDs appended, so outbounds are branded as revenue-generating referrals. With a popular service like tinyurl, The income you could get from Amazon, CJ, and Linkshare would be staggering.

  10. I get nervous clicking on shortened Urls. I simply have no idea what I am going to get until I get there. I do find it interesting when spammers put these Urls in their profile as their website.

  11. First, the internet is for porn – even that WoW monsters sing for that.
    Secondly, it needs very good mathematical/programming knowledge to create a really nice URL shortener algorithm, especially if it has letter selection options or if it creates shortened subdomain folders for each registered member it may have. It needs much time to develop such a web app. The free scripts I see on the net are simple random pre-defined #number letter generators.
    Third, my mother-in-law loves porn – she’d yell “OH YEA, I’d like one of these too Johny!”, instead of “WHUA! GROSS!”

  12. @James: I think they still use a few different minifiers, unless people are created them on their own (or their apps are).

  13. I see the more likely scenario being some extremely annoying monetization scheme. Build up your service until you’re processing x million redirects a day, and then make users sit through a 5 second advert. Wouldn’t matter that people would dump the service immediately – you’ve got massive residuals from a service like that.

  14. What I don’t understand about Twitter is why they shorten URLs using a 3rd party. Surely they’re better to do it themselves to avoid these sorts of issues.

  15. The URL shorteners are basically just another form of DNS. We all put our complete trust in DNS, right? (no.) At least DNS has some pretty heavy regulation… There is absolutely no regulation for the current form of URL shorteners.

  16. I think sites like TinyURL are so popular now-a-days that we’d know well in advance if the got bought out by a porn company. The link failing is a real concern, but all sites go down from time to time. I wouldn’t worry about it.

  17. Darkimmortal

    URL shorteners are full of fail tbh

  18. It has already happened at least once with cjb.net, although instead of pr0n it was spyware and adware.

    Twitter should remove the need for external tiny URL services and store the real URLs together with the tweats, external to the character limit.

  19. I understand your concerns and its only a matter of time till those services start replacing (old) links with advertising (with or without an iframe for example). I believe some are already doing that.

    So twitter coming with its own shorten service (on the fly when i create a new tweet)? Would be awesome! have you suggested it to them? You got my vote!

  20. Jay

    URL shorteners are usability–, if the only reason Twitter uses them is to reduce the character count of tweets, then the method that Sebastian posted above would work equally well (essentially don’t count the characters of a URL against the limit, and on display use some ellipses to keep it short, but still give the user an idea where the link goes to).

    I would not be disappointed if all of the url shortening services stopped being used tomorrow.

  21. Interesting write-up. I would think there would be serious legal implications should a company/individual knowingly sell such a service to a porn company. If this did happen, I’m sure there would be some action taken by certain legislative bodies, in order to set a precedent so as to avoid it happening again. Of course, by then it would be too late, but “better late then never” would certainly apply to any action taken at any point on such an issue.

    Also, I think this might be a bit of an overreaction considering about 95% of short urls are only used for a very brief amount of time, even though technically they last “forever”.

  22. Real Question: would it be worth it to Flynt? $3 mil is probably bit cheap for a TinyURL, $20 mil would be an interesting price-point for a big advertising stunt.

    As for long-term impact – probably not much. Shorten url’s don’t typically “live” long. You make them, you tweet/instant-message, it’s passed along, then it’s done. People would just stop using it.

    Fact Check: Twitter is partnering with bit.ly now, and they are taking a lead in that space

  23. Andrea

    Last month Jeff Atwood discussed about this ( here’s the whole link http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/001276.html :P ).

    The problem is “url shortener: how do they profit?”. I mean, they have costs? Something like tinyurl/u.nu/bit.ly I suppose generate a lot of traffic. Who pays for that? It’s just matter of time someone will close and… what about all those links?

    The porn idea it’s evil! It made me laugh, you’re EVIL man. :D

  24. There are a lot of “ifs” when talking about the internet. We all probably “trust” websites way more than we should…

    I personally don’t care if the porn industry bought tinyurl. the web has always had a way of self correcting, moving on and forgetting what happened 2 months ago.

  25. I was curious about the TOS, so I checked it out…

    Disclaimer:

    This site is provided without warranty of any kind. There are no guarantees that it will be available at any given time, and no guarantees that this site or service will not be subject to interruptions. All direct or indirect risk related to use of this site is borne entirely by you, the user.

    We reserve the right to amend or change these policies, terms and conditions at any time and without prior notice.

    Perhaps if a company were to come along with Terms that guarantee that the links will not be redirected, and/or the users will be notified well in advance, and/or that the site will not be sold (again, prior to notice well in advance), then users could feel (somewhat) safer that this wouldn’t happen… at least not without dire legal and financial consequence.

    But without such a guarantee, I’d never want to rely on one of those URLs… but then again I don’t have any need for it.

    :o)

  26. I’m no network person, but I would think this could be handled by DNS at a really high level, if not the major ISPs dealing with it.

  27. Darkimmortal

    @Jeff Hartman

    How would they get the database?

  28. Elves.

    Uh, no. They’d block the tinyurl domain name as a whole.

  29. From an seo perspective, I’m sure Google would devalue the links immediately. Unfortunately that wouldn’t do much for the millions of legacy links out there.

  30. What a scenario! But right as I think and I always use TinyURL.
    Maybe every big service must have a its own URL-minifying service.

  31. That is a scary thought, but hey, you’re not just ranting here because there really is nothing stopping this from happening.

    Take the digg minifying service and the fiasco that happened last week. Ultimately it’s Digg and no-one else that can decide what to do with all the million link redirections it’s in charge of!

    Great post, it’s an eye opener for some I’m sure!

  32. deef

    I think, when selling its soul to the darks side, it wouldn’t take long for the url-shortening-service to get blacklisted and it will most probably mean self-destruction in the shortest possible time. Would it be worth the 3m? Maybe…

  33. This is one reason why I use my wordpress install to create short URLS. Another is I get the SEO benefits of it showing up on various websites.

  34. I don’t understand why there’s such a hype around tiny urls. Yes, I know, on twitter every character counts, but aren’t we web designer/developers get told to use significant urls? Over and over and over again! For me using a tiny url existing of some random characters is the same as having an url ending with …/index.php?id=345. It’s the same amount of information about the content of the page: Nothing! Naaa….at least when using Query-Strings you still know if you are on the right domain and not some ad/porn/malware/…-server.Great post netherless!

  35. Bojan

    Imagine now that Mr. Flynt replaced
    all correct link redirects with the
    most disgusting pornographic links out
    there. You’re at work and click on a
    link…WHOA! You’re sitting around the
    computer with friends, click a link
    and….WHOA! You’re showing your
    mother-in-law the present you want to
    get your wife for her birthday
    and…WHOA! GROSS!

    Great, so fanny and scary at same time.

  36. Assnonymous

    Great, so fanny and scary at same time.

    Fanny. I do believe that pun was unintentional.

  37. Funny, David Walsh will now be linked with the “Porn” keyword on Google, haha!

    You’re right though, it’s important to keep some control and it’s not Mr. Flint’s fault, it’s ours. WE watch porn, WE create tools for them, WE would sell them too. Sometimes, you just need to backoff a bit.

    Keep up the good work David.

  38. I have heard twitter and bit.ly are pretty close, with bit.ly’s servers rumored to be hosted with twitter. I don’t think they would sell in any way.

  39. http://tr.im/ has just announced it is ending their service.

  40. So something like a http://pr.0n/ URL shortening service wouldn’t make you feel any better about the situation, eh? heheh.

  41. Anton Suprun

    What, more porn? That is impossible.
    Jokes aside, I have never thought of that before and you have a point there. But I do think that people will migrate to a different shortener service in a matter of weeks. Sure, there will be some broken links. But since most of the links from twitter are used to show people humorous photos and videos, which tend to become old news in, like, 5 minutes, most of the links will not be missed.
    That’s how I see it, anyways.

  42. I totally agree, people place so much trust in these services, this could do some serious damage to companies using them if they links suddenly go down or even worse go elsewhere! Does google offer one?

  43. @Beldar: Google has its URL shortening service, its called goo.gl

    http://www.nitinh.com/2010/01/goo-gl-google-url-shortner-bookmarklet/

  44. Here’s why this doesn’t worry me:

    Twitter is the only place where I or any of the people I work for ever need to use URL shortening services. Facebook allows you to post complete URLs with more than enough space left over for text as do Identi.ca, Posterous and the vast majority of other social networking sites – if you’re using a shortener when you don’t need to, thats your own fault. If a Porn company were to buy Bit.ly or TinyURL..it wouldn’t really make a difference to me. I’d simply direct my users to a sitemap where they can find a list of posts and correct links. Any website linking to me usually just use the direct URL and if I was truly paranoid about it..I’d just setup my own URL shortening service…

  45. ArjandeV

    In a perfect world there would be 1 shortening service and this service should let its users (the websites where this shorturls are displayed) implement a javascript, which gets the real url from the shorturl and display it on a hover. At least you see the url then and you know where you are going. Should be fairly easy to create with some ajax I guess?

  46. Josh Purcell

    Funny you should mention twitter getting is own mini-fying site. It now has (http://t.co) and YouTube has also (http://YouTu.be)

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