Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Memo to Internet Nutjobs: Please think before you post

Threats against others on the Internet are just about as surprising as the sky being blue every morning. But some threats are more serious than others, and the list of victims seems to be expanding as more of the unwashed masses general public gets online. Online marketers are one of the newest groups to join that list, and once again, we are faced with questions about how much regulation is necessary in online communities to keep the peace without stepping on users' freedom of expression.

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Marty Weintraub, a search engine optimization expert at aimClear, detailed on some of his recent experiences with death threats online. He, like many other online marketers, had begun focusing marketing efforts on social sites like Facebook and StumbleUpon because of their rich user data and easily-targetable user groups. But not all users are fond of the fact that their personal data can be used for marketing purposes, and Weintraub found himself right at the center of angry StumbleUpon users' crosshairs after posting about how much he loved the eBay-owned site.

"The feeling was reminiscent of historic book burnings because of violent and Nazi-laced symbolism and hyperbolic rhetoric," Weintraub wrote. The level of harassment even increased after he discussed his experiences publicly several times. After receiving a number of death threats and calls for suicide by members of StumbleUpon (of which Weintraub notes are a violation of the site's Terms of Service), he turned to the FBI, who told him that nothing could be done about users from overseas and that he should contact moderators of the site. Eventually, StumbleUpon moderators reacted by booting a single user from the site. "Then all hell broke loose," Weintraub wrote.

StumbleUpon, however, did not tell us whether it would take any further action against the harassers. Instead, we got a fairly generic statement about the TOS. "We take the concerns of our members seriously," StumbleUpon VP of marketing Dave Feller told Ars. "When users register on our site, they agree to our Terms of Use which state that they cannot post 'threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene or otherwise objectionable' content. StumbleUpon does not condone behavior that violates out Terms and will take action when these situations occur."

To most of us who have spent a large part of our lives participating in forums, the above situation doesn't sound all that bad. But is that because we're been conditioned to accept a much lower set of standards for online behavior? At what point do threats online become more serious than juvenile postings?

A number of incidents have been publicized in recent years as a result of cyber harassment. An man sued AOL over a chat room kerfuffle that allegedly resulted in one member attempting to intercept his (real) mail. High school teachers and principals have faced online allegations of child molestation. A third of teens say that they've experienced some sort of cyberbullying. Two law school students sued AutoAdmit after receiving repeated death, rape, and other threats, which resulted in one victim losing a number of job prospects. And now there's a (somewhat stale) movement towards a Blogger Code of Conduct after programmer and instructor Kathy Sierra was subject to a string of threats of physical harm, death, and rape online.

It's hard for me to write about this. Having been a writer for Ars Technica for a number of years now and a forum member for more than twice as long, I'm no stranger to trolls. I remember the first time I received an e-mail containing a photo of a woman being gang-raped with my face Photoshopped over hers. Then there was the time when a certain forum and IRC member started following me around online, eventually gained access to my unlisted phone number, and began calling me repeatedly all hours of the night to tell me what "pleasant" things he planned to do to me. Another time, a reader showed up at my door unannounced. The last time I wrote about Ron Paul spam, I received hordes of e-mail and IM messages from "supporters" telling me to watch out when I leave the house lest someone put a hit on me for "selling out." Some of my colleagues are so afraid for me that one of them offered to teach me self-defense for the sole purpose of protecting myself against readers who have gone off their rockers.

So, I can sympathize with Weintraub.

He doesn't ask for much—all he wants is for eBay (and the companies that own similar communities online) to step up moderation of users that go over the line. "[T]he only pathway to success and longevity in social media is to actually participate and bring value to the community," he wrote. "If the problem continues then many people will leave. eBay might be left holding a $75 million investment with limited value to big brands."

Unfortunately, the solution isn't quite that simple—anyone who has moderated any sort of community knows that doing so means constantly walking a thin, gray, moving line, and users are equally as sensitive to over-moderation as they are to a constantly negative environment. But he does have a point—no one should have to put up with that kind of constant harassment, online or off. Not even marketers.

What message do we have for those who choose to harass others online? First, none of us are perfect (that includes the Ars staff, Weintraub, Kathy Sierra, you, me, and the rest of the Internet). Second, realize that your words aren't going into a black hole. They're being read by other people—a lot of them, in some cases. You may hate these people and what they have to say, but addressing issues instead of taking cheap pot shots or making death threats against people will go a long way towards ensuring that your point of view is heard, and maybe even respected. That's better than having the substance of your arguments disappear in a torrent of threats and invective.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Top Ten Blogger Personas: The Mobosphere Unveiled by John Dozier, Dozier Law

Top Ten Blogger Personas: The Mobosphere Unveiled
By John Dozier - Dozier Internet Law

Ever since Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act giving immunity to interactive service providers for publishing the defamation of others, a wide range of characters has arisen and infiltrated the mainstream blogosphere. Instead of becoming a source for obtaining reliable information, the blogosphere, and user generated content, is at risk of becoming a less credible information source. Dozier Internet Law is constantly battling these “black hat” forces and over the past several years we have acquired quite an insight into this underworld; an anonymous and covert society bent on terrorizing businesses. These are our internal thoughts on the matter, and not scientific analyses. We are not psychiatrists; just trial lawyers trained for almost fifty years to figure out the human nature of clients, witnesses, and juries.

All too often blog attacks are simply protection rackets and extortion schemes in disguise. We have been working on documenting the organizational structure and operational methodologies used by these racketeers. For now, let’s take a look at the entire panoply of characters we seem to run into. For those businesses under attack, it is essential that you first identify the publisher’s persona and motivation before beginning to identify the proper strategies for addressing his often seemingly legitimate posts. We don’t go into details on how we work with clients to deal with each type of personality, but the tools vary considerably from being passive, to utilizing SEO services, to implementing reputation management initiatives, to pre-litigation and lawsuit actions.


This is the guy who used to wait on street corners for elderly ladies to pass. He enjoys attacking defenseless people and stealing covertly using deception. This type of blogger will steal your copyright protected content, have the search engines push your prospective clients to his site, and then run ads and otherwise direct the traffic to your competitors. He could be an affiliate marketer for a competitor getting a share of the revenue, or he could simply be running Google or Yahoo ads on his site. Pickpockets also take great pleasure in stealing your trademarks…surreptitiously using your mark in hidden tags, meta tags, hidden redirect pages, or through a myriad of search engine optimization techniques, all in the hopes of re-directing your prospects to a competitor and taking money from you.

We usually identify a wacko situation quickly. There are distinctive characteristics of his communications. The wacko is usually a “follower”, someone looking to gain attention and recognition, but escalates what may have started as fair criticism into more and more outrageous claims. Most sophisticated business people immediately view the poster as a “nut case”, particularly when an excessive amount of time or energy disproportionate to the merits of the subject is expended. But it is not easy for the typical browser on the web to see the pattern, usually spread over multiple web properties.


Or, maybe “liquid courage” would be more appropriate. This guy is exactly what comes to mind. During the day this blogger is a normal guy, but at night he returns to the sanctity of his home, gets drunk or high, and goes out on the web looking for “hook-ups” and blogging on his “hang-ups”. This guy is hard to detect as a fraudster, and sometimes won’t recall what he said online the next day while under the influence. He posts aggressive, false and arbitrary attacks on whatever issue of the day (or night) catches his fancy.


No, not from another world. But from overseas. In a far, far away place, without any treaty with the US, in a country without an effective legal system and no notion of business or personal property ownership rights. Many of these types operate out of certain Russian provinces, but the blogs, postings and communications appear to be from the customer down the street. This individual usually has an ulterior motive, often working with the criminal discussed below. He has no fear, until he takes a vacation to Turkey and US federal agents grab him for extradition, which is exactly what happened on a case in the not so recent past.


This is the guy who is scared to talk with a girl, but behind the keyboard, all alone, morphs into a Casanova. This empowerment of anonymity creates an omnipotent persona, and for the first time the nerd feels the effect of power and control, gets an adrenaline buzz when he exercises it, and he exercises it often, usually creating or perpetuating a volatile situation in which he feels he can outsmart the “opposition”. There is no principle involved. His blog postings are all about the adrenaline. It is hard to know if you are dealing with this type online…his posts are intelligent and on their face credible. But, once you identify the nerd blogger, he cowers and goes away, usually forever.


Enjoy debating a thirteen year old? They are out on the net acting like adults, posting statements and play-acting like a grown-up. The challenge, of course, is that most people reading the posts have no idea these are coming from a kid. The tip off can be the utter immaturity of the posts, but most often the kids can sound credible criticizing, for instance, a CPA's method of calculating RIO on REIT holdings, because they can mimic earlier posts. There is no insidious motive here; just kids having fun as the hormones kick in. But the readers of the blog posting don’t know that.


This person attacks others, causes pain, and revels in the results in ways not worthy of mention. He loves to create, direct, control, and unleash a firestorm of criticism about a company just to create pain and damage. This type of person may often by the prime instigator of the online attacks, and tightens the noose by escalating the attack rapidly, almost as if in an obsessive state. You will find a sadist going to many sites and blogging, and he usually lets you know it was him because he uses his real moniker. He has characteristics of a stalker, and he is most likely to be the one that starts recommending direct physical violence against the executives of a company. This person is not motivated by money, but by the pure enjoyment of pain being visited upon innocent parties.


No, not morally bankrupt. Actually bankrupt…no money, no assets, no prospects for work, and nothing to lose. These bloggers post without fear of the consequences or any regard for the truth because you “can’t get blood out of a turnip”, you “can’t get water from a rock”, and all these other sayings handed down, we surmise, through his generations. This is usually not a smart guy, but his postings are damaging and inflammatory. Many will own and control blogs without any concern about the consequences of liabilities that might arise through the perpetuation and “enhancement” of posts, and sometimes will post to their own blog and act like it was from a third party.


Career criminals, no less. Like the convicted felon running a sophisticated extortion scheme against a very prominent business. Or the owner of an open blog avoiding service of process with guard dogs protecting his compound. The thieves and crooks of the world are online today; and the criminals often have both an organization and a highly effective and surprisingly coordinated operational plan in place to target a business. Rumors of $500,000 a year payoffs seem to promote this problem, which emanates from more of a “mobosphere” than the blogosphere.


This person is in no manner a leader. This blogger has a hidden agenda, but he just makes it sound like he is a totally objective commentator. He can create an appearance of authority and the casual visitor to his blog does not question the legitimacy. This type of persona is hard to figure out. One of the most pervasive practices is to control a blog and allow negative posts against all except his generous advertisers. Another common technique involves omission; not disclosing conflicts of interest or the existence of a business or personal relationship because the readers of the blog would totally discount the commentator’s posts as unreliable and biased.

In closing, most of the blogosphere is legitimate, offers honest opinions and comments that add value to an open dialogue, and is an excellent example of the exercise of constitutionally protected free speech. The “mobosphere”, on the other hand, operates outside of the spotlight and often uses reckless, irresponsible, false and defamatory statements for personal or professional gain, all too often focused on self gratification and pecuniary benefits. As businesses attempt to leverage user generated content (“UGC”) into a valuable tool in the Web 2.0 environment, the proliferation of the scofflaws interrupting the free flow of credible speech in the online world puts at risk the reputation and integrity of UGC and raises the very real risk that consumers will begin viewing web content with disdain and suspicion.
After speaking with John Dozier, I feel he is definitely someone that is in tune with today's concerns in Cyberspace. When he showed me this article he wrote - I knew I had to Blog it myself.
As a victim and survivor of Internet Defamation - and my dealings with Cyberbullies - this article helps define some of the people that believe that free speech condones defamation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sue Scheff: A Voice that is Being Heard in a fight against Internet Defamation

Cyberbullying has become a past-time for some people, that in my opinion, have too much time on their hands. Wouldn't it be nice if they could find some constructive work that may actually help people?

Since I have been put in the media attention with my court victories including winning an unprecedented $11.3M jury verdict for damages, I am now working with one of my Florida State Senator's and we have our first meeting with our Congresswoman this month.

It is time to make Cyberspace a safe place not only for children, but for people that are being ruined by people with too much time on their hands - and people that believe that free speech is a free for all on the Internet. Remember, free speech does not condone defamation and libelous statements.

As I begin the garnishment of the defendant that has $11.3M judgment on her - it should be a reminder to all those that want to hurt others with a stroke of a key.
The "obsession" with me may not stop, but I will use it to help others and use it to promote Internet Safety. Taking all the negative and turning it into a positive result..... Fighting back against Internet Abuse and helping protect others from the type of harassment.