Last week, new New York Times public editor Liz Spayd said something completely and utterly crazy: she suggested that news outlets and websites should actually listen to and interact with their visitors in news comment sections. Given this is the age where most "enlightened" media outlets are now closing their comment sections and pretentiously pretending it's because they "value conversation," Spayd's comments were treated like the incoherent ramblings of a mad woman on some fronts, people claiming actually caring about readers was a form of "phony populism" and the "willfully naive" rhetoric of a bygone era.
But we've noted time and time again that by muzzling them or shoveling off your community to the homogonized blather of Facebook, you're pretty clearly saying you don't think your audience really matters. Countless editors refuse to believe this, by and large because nobody at a multi-million dollar media empire wants to actually have real conversations with the dirty plebeians they profess to be so selflessly dedicated to. The entire mechanism should be demolished, they argue, because commenters are mean and say bad things -- ignoring studies suggesting this can be easily fixed by giving a damn.
Nick Denton, likely overjoyed to talk about something other than Peter Thiel, last week indicated he's among this "willfully naive" minority that believes news comments are worth saving. Regardless of whether or not you like the Gawker empire, Denton makes it clear that maintaining communication with the company's customers is not only common sense, but embracing on-site comments makes money:
"The key is to distribute the moderation, to make every editorial team responsible for the discussions that their stories instigate. It’s not that hard—though it took several years and several million dollars for us to get it right. The commitment to quality discussions was one of the smartest decisions we made. In economic terms, we see a payoff not just in greater editorial leverage, but in time spent on page. On mobile, for instance, we outperform the other publishers by more than half: 81 seconds compared with a Google Analytics benchmark of 53 seconds. I think that’s largely because the pages are more interesting, for longer."
Again, it's worth noting that while Gawker spent a significant amount of money on its Kinja commenting platform with some mixed results, data has suggested that just having writers show up to talk can have a profound impact on the quality of comments. But Denton also focuses on the fact that stifling the inherent bi-directional communication nature of the Internet is just dumb, and many outlets just don't like comments because they advertise errors made in their reporting or commentary:
"Above all, this is just the way that Internet news should be. Why wouldn’t you want to tap the opinions and expertise of your readership? Unless you are embarrassed by them."
Despite all the media's bluster about social media being an adequate replacement for an "unsavable" comment section, the reality is many bigger media brands just don't like having real human beings pointing out when they're wrong in such an obvious and public fashion. If you've spent any time writing on the Internet, you probably know that the comment section, warts and all, is also stocked with some very bright people with wide ranging expertise who'll often provide invaluable corrections. Possibly right after they make a joke about your mom, but still.
Throwing out the entire concept of on-site comments because a jackass said something mean or pointed out you were wrong about something has never been much of a solution. Subsequently claiming you muzzled your customers because you wanted to "build relationships" and "value conversation" only informs these muted community members you also think they're all incredible, irredeemable morons. If that's the brand message you're actually pursuing in your quest to nab more advertising eyeballs? Phenomenal job.
from the flogged-in-the-public-square-for-caring dept
For some time now, the opinion du jour in "enlightened" media circles has been to treat the news comment section (aka the customers who visit your website daily and directly) as some kind of irredeemable leper colony. One that should be nuked from orbit before the infection spreads. As such, we've seen website after website proudly crow about how they've given up on allowing site comments because a handful of posters are obnoxious, hateful little shits and the social media age means more direct community interaction is passe.
These announcements usually come hand in hand with all manner of disingenuous platitudes from the editorial staff, like we killed comments because we wanted to "build relationships," or we muzzled our entire user base because we just "really value conversation." Usually, this is just code for websites that are too lazy and cheap to moderate, weed and cultivate their community garden, and find it convenient to argue that outsourcing discourse to the homogenized blather realm of Facebook is an improvement.
Since this trend began a few years back, you'll occasionally see an editor stop and realize that these disregarded masses are, warts and all, the life blood of a community -- and preventing them from publicly interacting on site is actually a step backwards. Case in point is new New York Times public editor Liz Spayd, who this week asked a bizarre and outlandish question: what if websites were to treat these people like actual human beings and the comment section as something worth saving? Says Spayd:
What The Times and most other newsrooms mostly do now is not so much listen to readers as watch and analyze them, like fish in a bowl. They view them in bulk, through statistics measuring how many millions of “unique” users clicked on content last month, or watched a video, or came to the site multiple times, or arrived through Facebook.
What would prove more fruitful is for newsrooms to treat their audience like people with crucial information to convey — preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information. What do they like about what we do and how we do it? What do they want done differently? What do they turn to other sites for?
This isn't really complicated. Spayd refreshingly realizes that the rise of the comment troll is in many ways the fault of websites themselves. Writers and editors simply don't want to cultivate real conversation, because it's hard work and their current analytical tools can't monetize discourse quality. Instead, websites have begun to approach the end user relationship like the owner of a prison colony who believes the entire sordid affair can only be improved by a good, industrialized delousing or the outsourcing to bigger, meaner prisons.
In reality studies have found that comment sections can be dramatically improved -- simply by treating site visitors well and by having somebody at the website make a basic effort at fundamental human-to-human communication:
One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments.
Seventy different political posts were randomly either left to their own wild devices, engaged by an unidentified staffer from the station, or engaged by a prominent political reporter. When the reporter showed up, “incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments on the subject matter,” according to the study.
With the daily struggle to produce more and more content in a sea of more and more competitors, it's simply easier to pretend that the comment section doesn't matter.
But what's being pushed as enlightened evolution by editors is just willful obliviousness driven by lazy thinkers, incapable of embracing anything that can't be clearly, graphically monetized. It's thinking built at media empires with the multi-million dollar backing of giant conglomerates, where actual human interaction is already more easily obscured by the daily shuffle of incessant bi-coastal conference calls. Since the comment section is perhaps the most valuable source of corrections, it's also a wonderful way for such giant companies to avoid advertising that their writers may have made a mistake.
I've been at the heart of one smaller, community-driven website since 1999 (DSLReports.com) and a writer here at Techdirt for several years, so it's perhaps more obvious to me that scrappier upstarts don't have the luxury of telling their entire community to piss off to Twitter if they want to leave public feedback.
Not too surprisingly, Spayd's idea was received poorly by some in the news media who believe public interaction with readership on site is either beneath them or wholly irrelevant in the social media era. MIT Technology Review Editor Jason Pontin was quick to declare that Spayd's comments reflected a "disastrous first outing" as the Times' new public editor, going further to suggest that anybody who gives a damn about public comments has the "wrong priorities":
A disastrous first outing. Show me an editor who cares about comments, and that's someone with the wrong priorities. https://t.co/3JrFw8L9HS
After writing that the paper is trying to move in the direction of more comments, she adds that the speed at which it has done so has been hindered by "other newsroom priorities." I’m not sure what those other priorities are, but to spend your first column focusing on something like a comments section is another sign that Spayd’s priorities are bizarre and even—this will sting—out of touch.
Yes, how gauche. As we all know by now, you don't build community by treating site visitors well, you build community by telling them all to fuck off to Facebook, where their infectious, intellectual detritus can be more easily ignored.
Many of you likely know about Glassdoor.com, which is a website used by both employers and propsective employees for recruiting, job applications and reviews of companies by former employees as to what it's like to work at a given company. As with any source of crowdsourced reviews, it is not without its pitfalls and controversy, but most of that has to do with different methods by which companies and former employees try to promote or slam a partricularly workplace with anonymous reviews. Anyone who has done job placement research, however, knows how valuable the site is.
Yet the use of anonymous reviews, as is typical of other sites, breeds discontent amongst some. Typically you will hear complaints from companies being reviewed negatively about these anonymous reviews being unfair, untrue, or ginned up by a limited number of ex-employees. That's usually the end of it. Occasionally, however, you get a company that wants to sue over reviews like this. California law firm Layfield & Barrett is apparently one such firm.
California trial attorney Philip Layfield, joined by his firm, has filed a defamation claim against 25 John Does over anonymous comments they left online about Layfield, his current firm of Layfield & Barrett, and his former firm of Layfield & Wallace. Our network of tipsters is mighty, and we’ve gotten our hands on a third-party subpoena served upon Glassdoor.com, a jobs and recruiting website, that allows users to post anonymous reviews of places they are current or former employees of, in order to provide an assessment of the working environment for job seekers. The subpoena seeks the identifying information of several users who have taken to this anonymous online forum to complain about their allegedly miserable work.
You can see the full subpoena below, but it does indeed seem that some of the reviews left for the firm were quite nasty. Titles for some of the posts include "Deceptive, Unethical, Poorly Managed, No Sense Of Direction," "Working Here is Psychological Torture," and my personal favorite "For the love of God, do NOT work here." One can understand why an employer would be unhappy about the existance of these reviews.
Suing over them, however, is likely to be as feeble as it is misguided. This is typically the part of the post where we talk first about the difficulty of suing successfully over these types of opinion-based reviews, move on to then talk about the importance of sites like Glassdoor.com honoring its users' anonymity, before finally coming around to explain that the Streisand Effect will now take hold of this whole thing, with the lawsuit serving mostly to catapult the negative opinions the firm disliked into the forefront of more people's minds than otherwise would have been. And that would usually be the end of the post.
That is not the end of this post, in part because Glassdoor has promised to fight the attempt to out its anonymous contributors, but even more so because Philip Layfield agreed to comment on the story for Above The Law, and Oh. My. God.
With respect to the lawsuit filed, here is the reality. Our law firm has approximately 150 employees and 35 attorneys. We demand the best of the best. Many people lie about their skills, their experience and their desire to be the best when the interview. We pay top dollar for candidates and many of our attorneys earn in excess of $1 million per year. When people are lazy or incompetent, they either quit because the writing is on the wall or they are terminated. Unfortunately, most of those people are unwilling to recognize their shortcomings and they turn to anonymous blogs to spit their venom. The reality is that they should be upset with their parents for raising lazy and incompetent young adults, but they choose to spew false information on blogs such as Glassdoor. The majority of these posts contain blatantly false information. We are going to obtain the identities of these cowards and bring them to justice.These people are going to have to answer for their conduct and we will shine a light on this very cowardly practice that has become an epidemic. People need to realize that just because you are sitting anonymously behind a keyboard, you can’t break the law. Ultimately, future employers will have to decide whether they want to employ people who post false and hateful information about former employers. The same way that Glassdoor operates as a hate forum for disgruntled employees, employers have a right to know information about job applicants.
Unfortunately, most employers are too busy to spend time posting negative information about former employees on job sites, although that would probably do a lot of good for society. For example, I would love to post information about employees who graduated law school, but can’t put two sentences together, or those that are sick at least one day every week.
We will not give any further comments until the case is over.
Imagine yourself for a moment as someone who was willing to give Layfield and his firm the benefit of the doubt thus far. Are you any longer? Probably not. This comment does nothing to verify the accuracy of the complaints at Glassdoor, but it does solidify them in the mind to some degree, does it not? In addition to the demeaning nature with which Layfield addresses his former employees, the aggrandizing tone with which he describes his own firm, and his silly labeling of Glassdoor as a hate forum, he does us all a service by outlining his desire to have employers act every bit as vindictively towards former employees as he complains about in reverse. That kind of delicious hypocrisy isn't in rare supply, of course, but that doesn't make it any less scrumptious to behold.
And, to the previous point, whatever Streisand-y Effect might have resulted from the legal action the firm had already taken will now be supercharged by this boorish comment at a well-read legal industry blog. And here at Techdirt. Any likely many other places as well. If the goal was to make the firm a more attractive place to work, it's difficult to think of a better strategy than this to achieve the opposite.
A couple weeks ago, we wrote about a phone call (and follow up emails) we received from Homeland Security indicating an interest in sending us a subpoena, asking for any identifying information we had on a commenter. That commenter had posted a (somewhat ridiculous) comment, in response to another story, about a guy who had nearly a quarter of a million dollars taken by him by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) under civil asset forfeiture rules. The commenter, somewhat weirdly, suggested that the guy who had this money stolen might "know people" who could murder the agents who took the money. It was clearly not a threat. It was random idle speculation.
But, for whatever reason, the sister agency of CBP, called Homeland Security Investigations (HSI -- which was formerly Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE), decided that it wanted to subpoena the information on the commenter. Through our lawyer, we noted that we had serious First Amendment concerns about the chilling effects this might have if even weird comments like that lead to federal law enforcement knocking on people's doors. We explained that we were happy to look over the details, but in the absence of more information suggesting a real and legitimate threat, we were inclined to resist complying with the subpoena to protect our users. We also noted that we were publishing the info on Techdirt at the time, given a similar situation with Reason's website came with an almost certainly unconstitutional gag order, and we wanted to explain what was happening prior to any similar order.
Some people have asked for an update on the situation and it's this: nothing has happened. We haven't received any subpoena at all. In fact, we've received no further communications at all from Homeland Security. It is possible that something is still coming, but we hope that the agents at HSI and anyone else involved with this have realized that this is not a worthwhile activity. We'll keep you updated, should anything change.
Earlier this week, one of our writers, Tim Cushing, had a story about yet another abuse of the civil asset forfeiture procedure. You can read that whole story for the details, but the short version is that US Customs & Border Patrol, along with Hancock County (Indiana) Sheriff's Dept. officers, decided to seize $240,000 in cash from a guy named Najeh Muhana. Muhana sought to get that cash back, but after a series of ridiculous communications, his lawyer was told that Customs and Border Patrol in Ohio was keeping the money, and that Muhana had "waived his rights to the currency." This was not true, and certainly appeared to be pretty sketchy. Because of all of this, Muhana filed a lawsuit against US Customs & Border Patrol asking for his money back.
Not surprisingly, this story of what many would argue is just blatant theft by law enforcement (the people who are supposed to be protecting us from theft) upset a number of folks who expressed their frustrations in the comments -- some using colorful language. That kind of language might not necessarily be considered appropriate in polite company, but isn't entirely out of place in internet forums and discussions where rhetorical hyperbole is not uncommon.
So I have to admit that I was rather surprised yesterday afternoon when we received a phone call from an agent with Homeland Security Investigations (the organization formerly known as ICE for Immigration and Customs Enforcement), asking where they could send a subpoena to identify a commenter on our site. Our lawyer, Paul Levy of Public Citizen Litigation Group, requested more information and we were told that DHS is interested in obtaining user information on the following comment by "Digger."
The only "bonus" these criminals are likely to see could be a bullet to their apparently empty skulls.
The person wronged probably knows people who know people in low places who'd take on the challenge pro-bono, after a proper "cooling-off" period.
Now, that's pretty crude and a bit ridiculous. But it's also pretty obviously not even anything remotely like an actual threat. First off, he's not suggesting that he's looking to do this at all. He's suggesting that "the person wronged" -- by which he likely means Mr. Muhana -- would somehow get some friends to do this. This is pretty ridiculous and almost certainly wrong. Second, he's actually responding to another comment, that reasonably bemoans the likelihood that those involved in all of this will receive no punishment at all.
Now, it's entirely possible that there are more details here involving a legitimate investigation, but it's difficult to believe that's the case given the information we have to date. Also, we have not yet received the subpoena, just the phone calls and emails suggesting that it's on its way. Normally, we'd wait for the details before publishing, but given a very similar situation involving commenters on the site Reason last year, which included a highly questionable and almost certainly unconstitutional gag order preventing Reason from speaking about it, we figured it would be worth posting about it before we've received any such thing.
We have told Homeland Security that we're willing to receive the subpoena and review it, but that based on what we know, we have serious First Amendment concerns about the request itself. Multiple Supreme Court cases, including Rankin v. McPherson and Watts v. United States have made it clear that people have a First Amendment right to say that they hope the President gets shot, let alone a law enforcement agent. It may be rude and uncomfortable, but if it is not an indication of a "true threat," then it is protected. And, as such, the idea of disclosing any information about someone who was clearly engaged in rhetorical hyperbole in an internet forum, likely leading to federal agents showing up at his or her door, is quite troubling to us.
Really, the most ridiculous part of this is why this is what's being investigated, rather than why the government was basically able to just walk away with $240,000 from this guy and ignore his attempts to get his money back.
We will keep you informed... as much as we are able to.
So... you may recall that, back in December, we received and responded to a ridiculous and bogus legal threat sent by one Milorad "Michael" Trkulja from Australia. Mr. Trkulja had sent the almost incomprehensible letter to us and to Google, making a bunch of claims, many of which made absolutely no sense at all. The crux of the issue, however, was that, back in November of 2012, we had an article about a legal victory by Mr. Trkulja against Google. The issue was that when you searched on things like "sydney underworld criminal mafia" in Google's Image search, sometimes a picture of Trkulja would show up. His argument was that this was Google defaming him, because its algorithms included him in the results of such a search and he was not, in fact, a part of the "underworld criminal mafia."
Either way, back in 2012 we wrote about that case, and Trkulja was upset that a comment on that story jokingly referred to him as a "gangster." Because of that, Trkulja demanded that we pay him lots of money, that we delete the story and the comments and that Google delist all of Techdirt entirely. Immediately, we pointed out in our response: the comment is not defamatory, the statute of limitations had long since passed if it was defamatory, as an American company we're protected by Section 230 of the CDA, and even if he took us to court in Australia, we're still protected by the SPEECH Act. Finally, we suggested that perhaps he chill out and not care so much about what an anonymous person said in the comments of an internet blog over three years ago -- especially when many people consider it a compliment to be called "a gangster."
Either way, it seemed fairly clear that there was no actual "harm" to Mr. Trkulja, given that he didn't even seem to care about it for over three years.
We had hoped that this would be the end of it, but apparently it is not. A few weeks back, we received the following, absolutely bogus legal threat from an Australian lawyer by the name of Stuart Gibson, who appears to work for an actual law firm called Mills Oakley. The original threat from Mr. Trkulja could, perhaps, be forgiven, seeing as he almost certainly wrote it himself (again, it was incomprehensible in parts, and full of grammatical and typographical errors). Our response was an attempt to educate Mr. Trkulja against making bogus threats.
However, now that he's apparently wasting money on a real lawyer like Gibson, we will address the rest of our response to Gibson: Your letter is ridiculous, censorious and not even remotely applicable. Going to court over this will make you and your client look extremely foolish. But let's dig in, because Mr. Gibson seems to think that blustery bullshit will scare us off. He's woefully misinformed on this.
First off, if you send a legal threat and say "NOT FOR PUBLICATION" at the top, it's tough to take you seriously, because such a statement is meaningless. We have no contractual agreement not to publish such information, and if you send us a bogus legal threat, we are damn well going to publish it:
And now on to the crux of Gibson's argument: we said mean things about his client and somebody's feelings may have been hurt.
If you can't read that, it says:
The matter that you have published conveys false and defamatory meanings including (but not limited to) the following:
Our client is a gangster;
That our client by virtue of his legal claims is incompetent and unfit to be a litigant;
That our client by virtue of his legal claims is a ridiculous litigant;
That our client is a criminal and a participant in organised crime;
That our client is unfit to be a litigant
None of these meanings is defensible. Our client is not a criminal and has never been a gangster nor associated with such persons. Accordingly there is no factual basis for the imputations published.
Let's go through these one by one. First off, we never said that Mr. Trkulja is a gangster. In fact, in both of our previous stories about him, we noted that his concern was over being called a gangster when he was not one. To claim otherwise is Mr. Gibson lying in his threat to us. As a suggestion, lying in your legal threat letter is not a very good idea.
Second, at no point did we state that Mr. Trkulja was incompetent or unfit to be a litigant. We merely published his own words -- admittedly including his misspellings, grammatical errors and general confusion -- and our responses to them. If Mr. Gibson thinks this implies that his client is unfit to be a litigant, perhaps he should check his own biases.
Third, again, Mr. Gibson seems to be assuming the claim. We did say that the threat against us was ridiculous -- an opinion we stand by. But we did not say he was a "ridiculous litigant." Also, "ridiculous" is a statement of opinion and even in nutty Australia, "honest opinion" is not defamation. And it is our "honest opinion" that the threat is ridiculous.
Fourth, this is a repeat of the first claim. It was false the first time, and it's still false. Repeating a false claim may allow Mr. Gibson to add to his billable hours, but doesn't seem like particularly good lawyering.
Fifth, this is a repeat of the second claim. See point four above. And point two above.
So let's be clear: we did not say that Mr. Trkulja was a gangster. We said, in our honest opinion, that he won a lawsuit the results of which we disagree with, and that his legal threat to us was ridiculous. This is all perfectly reasonable and protected free speech. Second, we posted Mr. Trkulja's own words which, again in our honest opinions, do show the "ridiculousness" of his threat to us in that it was filled with grammar and spelling errors and was, at points, (again, in our honest opinion) incomprehensible gibberish.
Mr. Gibson, then suggests that arrogance is somehow defamatory:
If you can't see that, it says:
Moreover your commentary that still resides on your website is an arrogant, false and poorly researched piece for the following reasons:
The reference to "gangster" is not "totally innocuous". The reference is grossly defamatory and indefensible. One could not conceive a more defamatory reference than that. It may be a throwaway line in the United States but it is certainly not in this jurisdiction.
Judgments against US companies especially those resident in California are enforceable particularly monetary judgments.
You are not protected by the Speech Act.
This firm has enforced numerous judgments against corporations in your jurisdiction.
Your reference to "free speech" is absolute nonsense. Speech may be free but it is also actionable.
You did publish the comment. Under Australian defamation law, you have a duty as a moderator to moderate third party comments. If you do not and refuse to take action when given notice, you are liable.
First off, I may not be an expert on Australian defamation law, but I can tell you I find it difficult to believe that "arrogance" or "poorly researched" information is defamatory there. It certainly is not defamatory in the US, and, furthermore, Mr. Gibson, you are wrong that it was poorly researched. It was well researched and backed up with a great amount of detail -- details I will note your own threat letter to us appears to be lacking. And I'm sorry if we come off as arrogant to you, but we're allowed to speak our minds.
Next, Mr. Gibson, you "could not conceive a more defamatory reference" than calling someone a gangster? Really, now? Because I'm at least moderately familiar with some Australian insults and many of them seem way, way worse than "gangster" -- which, again I will remind, you we never called your client (and, in fact, correctly noted that he was upset at someone calling him a gangster). And, yes, it is innocuous. No one cares that someone anonymously in a blog comment jokingly called your client a gangster. It was harmless as is fairly clearly evidenced by the fact that your client didn't even notice it for over three years.
Next, I'll note that for all your talk of enforcing Australian monetary judgments in California, you don't name a single one. And, you're wrong, because the SPEECH Act absolutely does apply, and you'd be exceptionally foolish to test this, though of course that is your decision to make. The text of the SPEECH Act is pretty explicit, first about when defamation rulings are enforceable in the US and (clue time!) it doesn't count if the statements wouldn't be defamatory in the US:
a domestic court shall not recognize or enforce a foreign judgment for defamation unless the domestic court determines that the exercise of personal jurisdiction by the foreign court comported with the due process requirements that are imposed on domestic courts by the Constitution of the United States.
Second, the law is also explicit that a service provider, such as us (in reference to comments published by readers on our site), if protected by CDA 230 in the US, would be similarly protected from foreign judgment:
a domestic court shall not recognize or enforce a foreign judgment for defamation against the provider of an interactive computer service, as defined in section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230) unless the domestic court determines that the judgment would be consistent with section 230 if the information that is the subject of such judgment had been provided in the United States.
I recognize that you're an Australian lawyer, not a US one, but I would suggest doing at least a tiny bit of research into the caselaw on Section 230 in the US. You will quickly learn that we do qualify as a service provider and that, no, we are not liable for statements in the comments. And, hell, even if we were, and even if the comments were defamatory under US law (which they're not), the statute of limitations on those original comments is long past anyway.
And, yes, in case you still have not read the SPEECH Act, the legal burden will be on you here:
The party seeking recognition or enforcement of the foreign judgment shall bear the burden of establishing that the judgment is consistent with section 230.
Good luck with that.
In case you still decide to ignore the actual text of the law, you can also go digging through the legislative record on the SPEECH Act, in which it was made explicit that the law was designed to protect against such forms of "libel tourism."
The purpose of this provision is to ensure that libel tourists do not attempt to chill speech by suing a third-party interactive computer service, rather than the actual author of the offending statement.
You can claim the law doesn't apply, but you are wrong. The text is clear. You can claim that you have won judgments or monetary awards in the past. And perhaps you have, but if you try to move against us, you will be facing the SPEECH Act and you will lose.
So, given all of the above, we will not be undertaking any of your demands. We will not apologize as we have nothing to apologize for. We will not retract anything, as we did not make any false or defamatory publications. We will not remove anything from our website. We will not pay your client anything, whether "reasonable costs" nor "a sum of money in lieu of damages."
Instead, we will tell you, as we did originally, to go pound sand and to maybe think twice before making bogus legal threats that you cannot back up.
Criticism is part of life, of course, and I tend to believe that people show their true selves most transparently when they show how they deal with criticism. Unfortunately, we've covered entirely too many stories involving people and companies responding to online criticism poorly here at Techdirt. Typically, these unfortunate responses amount to trying to censor the criticism, but it can more dangerously involve the attempted silencing of journalism as well as threats of legal action against those making the critical comments.
Too many times, websites and web services cave to this sort of censorship. But not everyone. Gawker Media, about whom I could fill these pages with criticism, appears to be pushing back on once such attempt levied against its site Jalopnik. Apparently, car-maker Honda took a negative view of some comments made at the site, purportedly by a Honda employee. For some reason, Honda decided that this distinction meant that it could not only silence the comments, but that it should receive help from the site in outing the commenter. The whole thing starts off, as seems so often the case, with some rather mild criticism in the form of a comment.
In December, a commenter calling him or herself HondAnonymous, posted a string of comments on these posts claiming to be a technician at Honda’s research and development facility. People on the Internet make claims like that all the time, but HondAnonymous seemed able to back them up with actual information about the development of the NSX and other cars. The most interesting bits were complaints about the NSX’s Continental tires (“they are garbage”) and how newer Honda engines have an issue “with the studs on the cat either backing out of the head or snapping altogether.”
Interesting, if not earth-shattering. A lot of it sounds like normal car development. The first one is a complaint we’ve seen in various early NSX tests, and the last is probably a recall waiting to happen. But earlier this month, Honda’s lawyers contacted us to say that information posted by HondAnonymous “is confidential information owned by Honda R&D Americas, Inc., and posts by that user of such confidential information breaches a contractual obligation of confidentiality owed to Honda R&D Americas, Inc.”
As Jalopnik notes, it wasn't them that posted the information. Instead, it was a commenter within the open commenting system Gawker Media uses. Regardless, apparently Honda's attorneys requested not only that all comments by the user be taken down immediately, but they also requested that the site turn over all identifying information about the user to them so that they could hunt down the leak. Think about this for just a moment and you'll see the problem: Honda wants Jalopnik's help in figuring out who this commenter is, while also demanding that the content be taken down because it violates a contractual confidentiality agreement. However, Jalopnik isn't obligated in any way to help Honda, regardless of what private contracts may or may not have been violated.
In typical Gawker fashion, Jalopnik gleefully is posting about all this, Streisanding the issue back into the news when it might otherwise have died off quickly.
It’s pretty egregious for a corporation to try to bully a news organization into deep-sixing comments from its own readers. It’s far more egregious to threaten to subpoena us if we don’t dox one of those readers. The good news is we couldn't dox HondAnonymous even if we somehow wanted to. He or she used an anonymous burner account, and we don’t track passwords, logins, or IP addresses for any of our users. HondAnonymous’ posts will stay up.
To Honda, or any other automaker: If you would like us to delete the comments of our readers or expose their identities (which, again, we can’t do anyway) again, please let me know! I am more than happy to drag your intimidation tactics into the public eye for all your customers and prospective buyers to see. Govern yourselves accordingly.
So, in trying to silence and out a critic, Honda instead finds themselves the subject of reports about the attempted silencing of the critic, whose criticism is once more in the public light. Bang up job, lawyers!
from the a-muzzled-readership-is-the-new-black dept
Add the Toronto Star to the growing list of websites which claim to love conversation with their readers so much, they will no longer be letting readers comment. As we've seen with countless news outlets over the last year, it's not just good enough to close your comment section, for some reason you must insult your readers' collective intelligence. This can easily be accomplished by pretending you're not closing down comments because you're too lazy and cheap to maintain a local community and moderators, but because you're looking out for the best interests of all mankind.
For example, Motherboard closed its comments section because it just really, really "valued discussion." The Verge informed its readers this year it was muzzling an entire readership because it was interested in "building relationships." Reuters, Recode, Popular Science all similarly insisted they were pressing the site visitor mute button because they simply adore the readership relationship and all it entails.
Not to be outdone by this parade of platitudes, Toronto Star Editor Michael Cooke this week also informed his site's readers the Star was eliminating the ability to comment on stories starting on Wednesday, December 16. Why? Because the news outlet simply adores its readership's passion and insight:
"We’ll also be working to foster more insightful commentary from our readers and engage with you in a more meaningful way. We have passionate, opinionated readers who are eager to get involved in conversations about politics, education, municipal issues, sports and more. You’re talking about the news on thestar.com, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, LinkedIn and more — and we want to be able to capture all of these conversations."
How exactly will this be accomplished moving forward? Like all the other comment-killing websites, the Star will lazily shove its readers toward social media, while highlighting only Star approved user thoughts and feedback received privately via e-mail:
"Our objective is to highlight the most thoughtful, insightful and provocative comments from readers and to inspire discussion across other platforms and on thestar.com. We’re looking forward to hearing from you — weigh in today at email@example.com."
Like most news outlets, The Star dreams of returning to the bygone days of letters to the editor, when you could just pretend idiots and trolls didn't exist, highlighting only staff-approved thought and opinions. Who needs the bi-directional nature of the Internet? Who wants readers pointing out how your authors have screwed up a story? And frankly, who wants to get your loafers dirty interacting with the unwashed masses?
When you close your comment section you're telling your users you don't think their voices matter. When you then insist you closed comments for the sake of "improved conversation," you're telling those same muted customers you think they're all idiots.
As we note every time another site takes the ax to their on-site community, the idea of comment section as some kind of mythical, untameable monster is a myth. Data shows all it takes to dramatically raise the discourse bar in the comments section is actually showing up and giving half a damn. It's neither expensive nor time-consuming to do, but it's a whole lot easier to shut down all public, transparent user feedback, and then pretend it's for the good of the known universe.
Now, after there was a public outcry over all of this, the newspaper has come up with what it considers to be a compromise: It will just delete all its old comments, rather than reveal who posted them (thanks to Paul Levy for making me aware of this). Then, going forward, comments will be under the new rules.
Because of certain limitations in our web site’s content management system, The Standard initially announced that unless we received requests from individual commenters for previous comments to be removed, earlier comments would as of Jan. 1 be displayed with real names.
We are concerned that such a change would not be fair to those who are either unaware of the pending change or have not contacted us.
So instead, all comments in the system as of Dec. 31 will be removed, and going forward, on Jan. 1, all new comments will be posted with real names in accordance with the Standard’s new policy.
I like how they claim that they are concerned about it, when the truth is that they seemed ready to push forward with those changes until they suddenly started getting called out for them. Either way, this response seems better than revealing everyone's names, but still seems fairly ridiculous. It also means that a whole bunch of old comments -- some of which may have been valuable -- will now disappear from the newspaper's site. Would it really have been that hard to fix their content management system instead?
As we've noted, we regularly get legal threats, some of which are more serious than others. Sometimes we ignore them entirely, and sometimes we feel the need to respond. Depending on the situation, sometimes we respond privately. Sometimes we respond publicly. The more ridiculous the threat, the more likely we are to respond publicly -- and I think the latest holds up as one of the most ridiculous legal threats we've seen. It comes from Milorad Trkulja, who is also known as Michael Trkulja, and who lives in Australia. Trkulja made some news a few years back when he (somewhat surprisingly) successfully sued both Yahoo and Google for hundreds of thousands of dollars, because when people did image searches on a variety of phrases related to things like "Australian criminal underworld mafia" sometimes a picture of Trkulja would show up. Apparently, Trkulja was actually shot in the back a decade ago by an unknown gunman. And somehow, for whatever reasons, certain websites included pictures of him along with enough keywords that the search algorithms at both Google and Yahoo would return his photo in such searches. We wrote about his victory over Google back in November of 2012, pointing out how ridiculous it was that an Australian court said you could sue search engines because image search happens to pop up your image along with actual gangsters.
Anyway, after we wrote about the case, as happens on Techdirt, people commented on the story, including one anonymous comment from someone who, in a totally offhand way, claimed that "Trkulja's a gangster, too." The actual content of the comment, as you can see was actually to clarify some of the misconceptions -- including who "Tony Mokbel" is (a well-known Australian gangster) and responding to the author of the post, Tim Geigner's (admittedly weak) sarcastic joke that Australians fight with machetes, rather than guns.
Now, it appears that Trkulja just found out about this comment (more on how in a moment) and has sent off a fairly massive 54-page document to both myself and to Google with a series of increasingly hilarious demands -- including that we respond by 4pm today (he does not designate in what time zone -- not that it matters). The letter is, well, you kinda have to read it. It is full of misspellings, along with typographical and grammatical errors of all kinds. For someone who claims to have consulted a lawyer before sending the letter, you'd think he'd consult someone who could proofread his letter as well. No such luck, apparently.
It starts out by claiming that it's "Not for publication" but that's totally meaningless. You send it to us, we can absolutely publish it. Free speech means something here in the US.
It then includes a recitation of some "facts" about certain Australian organized crime individuals, followed immediately by this:
I'm not an expert on Australian law, but I'm pretty sure that's totally false. I believe that he's either referring to his own earlier case, or (more likely!) the dreadful recent decision in a South Australia court, concerning one "Janice Duffy." Duffy, as we've discussed, sued Google after she became quite upset that a Ripoff Report post mocking her was a high result on her name (what is often left out of this discussion was that Duffy went to Ripoff Report first and posted fake posts to attack a psychic website where she felt she had been connected to a psychic who provided her with false information, and the supposedly "defamatory" content on the site was someone referring to Duffy as a "psychic stalker"). The ruling in that case did not say that Google is automatically liable for any defamatory content online, but rather, in this specific instance, Google could be found as the "publisher" of some defamatory content, based on the way that Google chose to display that content. I disagree strongly with the decision as is, but even if we accept it at face value, it does not say what Trkulja is claiming.
Oh yes, speaking of Duffy, it felt... odd... to receive a legal threat from Australia so soon after discussing the Duffy decision -- especially given that Duffy had not only just yelled at us online, but had also been going off on some bizarre rants and outright threats against some individuals who expressed an opinion suggesting that the ruling in favor of Duffy was troubling.
So, it didn't come as a huge surprise that Trkulja then admits he only found out about our post and the comments... thanks to Duffy, who is apparently a "family friend" of his.
If you can't read that, it notes that the "matter in paragraph 14" (which is the comment I mentioned above) "come to my attention when my family friend Dr Duffy from South Australia send me link that you have been defaming me as from 2012."
From there, he notes:
I complains is an article authored by you and posted to the "Techdirt" website situate at https://www.techdirt.com ("the website")....
Well, I'm really not quite sure what to do with that information, because almost everything in it is wrong, but we'll get there. From there, he mentions that he spoke to an Australian defamation lawyer, and suddenly shifts oddly from the first person to the third person -- possibly copying what someone told him, though it's not at all clear from the text of the letter. The key point: he claims that comment is defamatory and that Techdirt is liable for it. This is wrong on a variety of levels -- but we'll get there as well.
Then, we get to the "demands." It starts with a demand for Google. They are apparently supposed to delist Techdirt entirely because of a single comment that Trkulja falsely believes is defamatory. Also, it could be read as to be asking Google to block me personally from Google's website. Or something. Also, he wants Google to block some other websites. No reason or explanation is given.
Then there are demands for me that include identifying the anonymous "subscriber," delete the comment, the post and anything ever mentioning Trkulja. Oh, and I should fork over a bunch of money:
These demands are then repeated again on the next page in slightly different language. And numbered instead of lettered. No idea why. Then there's a demand that we respond by December 1st, 2012. Yes, 2012. I'll assume that's a typo.
Then there are a ton of screenshots that I assume are "exhibits" of some sort. They include my Twitter page for no clear reason. And also the Techdirt profile of the author of the original article, Tim Geigner, and, for reasons unknown, Tim's Amazon author page. He also refers to Tim as "Darknight aka Timothy Geigner" while I think most of our regulars recognize that Tim is better known as "Dark Helmet" in our comments....
Okay, so that's the situation. Now, the response: we're not going to do any of the demanded things. For a whole variety of reasons. Let's go through just a few, because this post is getting too long already and if I had to respond to all of the ways this letter is wrong, none of you would still be reading.
First up, not that it really matters, but the statute of limitations is one year in Australia, as it mostly is in the US as well. Under some circumstances, it can apparently be extended to three years, but (oops) that comment was published on November 13, 2012. The statute of limitations is up. Sorry.
The comment isn't defamatory. The reference claiming you're a "gangster" is totally innocuous. It's a trivial throw away comment on a blog post that no one would notice. Trivial comments are not defamation in Australia (or the US for that matter).
The other lines that you seem to complain about are opinions not statements of fact. The reference to the "gun" was a response to Geigner's joke in the post about machetes, not to anything involving you. Opinions are not defamation. Things unrelated to you are not defamation of you.
Also, we're a US company with no presence in Australia, so your threats are pretty pointless.
Even if you could convince an Australian court with some sort of wacky legal argument, we're totally protected from such judgment thanks to the SPEECH Act.
Free speech, dude.
We have no "subscriber" named Anonymous Coward. That's the designation given to anyone who comments without logging in.
We didn't publish the comment. An anonymous user did. We're not liable for it. If you have any legitimate complaint at all (and you don't), it's with an anonymous user who posted a trivial comment three years ago, rather than us or Google.
Even if none of the above is true: what the fuck? NO ONE is finding a comment buried deep below a blog post about your legal victory and suddenly saying "oh, well that proves that Trkulja was a gangster."
Wait, what's so terrible about being called a "gangster" anyway? To many people it's a compliment or something to brag about.
That's enough of a response. There are tons of other possible responses, but in short: we're not doing a damn thing in response to this ridiculous threat. You have no case whatsoever and complaining about this is ridiculous. It may be time to find a hobby or something, Mr. Trkulja, because poorly written and ridiculous legal threats to foreign entities aren't doing you any good.