Electronic Frontier Justice

Recently, in a burst of egotism or curiosity or something, I decided to type my name into Google. Go on, tell me you haven't done that, too. After getting over a thousand matches, at least one of which was an obituary, I remembered that there are quite a few Timothy Campbells out there. (Timothy is the third most common name in Ireland, by the way, and we Campbells are everywhere – hiding in your pantry, for example.)

I have several different online projects, including one on Internet trolls, so I added the word "trolls" to my search string. This turned up a few links back to my site. Nice to see.

I then decided to do the same search in the newsgroups. I discovered four references to my main troll article. Four very extensive references. Specifically, I found my article published, verbatim, on several newsgroups by well-meaning people who wanted to spread my observations far and wide.

When I say "verbatim", I mean precisely that. They even left in the line that reads:

Copyright © 2001 by Timothy Campbell

Being flattered and outraged at the same time is an interesting mix of emotion. Don't these people understand what the word "copyright" means? I've had some of my articles translated into several languages, but even a Swedish guy with a dodgy mastery of English knew that he had to ask for permission.

I suppose this is a reflection of the Wild West attitude of the net. People ignore copyright notices ... and think nothing of linking to a large image on another site. (I think the current epithet for such people is "bandwidth hogs".)

To some extent, though, it's possible to fight back. A few months ago, the management of the amusing web site Something Awful grew tired of people "borrowing" their images and decided to strike back. Whenever an off-site web page linked to one of their pictures, it would substitute another image. I believe it was a 90-year-old woman doing a strip-tease.

In a similar vein, a fellow on another web site noticed that he was getting a lot of hits from EBay for some pictures of a computer that resided on his site. After a bit of searching around, he discovered that somebody had placed an EBay ad that used his images. In response, he replaced the images with a visual record of the rigourous testing to which the proferred computer had been subjected. As I recall, this involved setting it on fire and (if memory serves) running over it with a steam-roller.

These are Wild West solutions, and if I had a ten-gallon hat, I'd tip it to these people who fight back in a way that is both amusing and effective.

I don't know what I can do about people who use cut-and-paste to pilfer my articles, though. Last year I was involved in a copyright violation suit and to say it was expensive and time-consuming is an understatement. Our side won (Yay!) but it was a bizarre experience because the other person didn't understand what all the fuss was about. The Wild West attitude appears to be deeply rooted.

Some years earlier, a fellow ripped off one of my computer programs and created what was (in my opinion), an inferior knock-off. It was a clear violation, since he lifted entire sections of text from the documentation. When I wrote him a polite letter asking him to cease and desist, he said something along the lines of "What bug crawled up your butt?" Lacking the funds to sue him into the Stone Age, I decided to trust my initial assessment and wait for his version to fade into oblivion. It did. (Yay!)

I'm also reminded of the time a beta-tester for one of my programs started distributing an almost identical product two days before I released mine. His knock-off also sunk into oblivion, while mine was nominated for a fairly prestigious award. Can I get a "Yay!" from the congregation?

By and large, things have worked out okay for me, but obtaining justice on the net is difficult, because of the expense and due to awkward matters of jurisdiction. Sometimes, as in the Something Awful or the EBay cases, justice is served only if you have motivated computer nerds who will swiftly take the law into their own hands. As in the Wild West, they're quick on the draw (or, in these instances, Photoshop).

But that course of action has its perils. I once ran a message board that had been plagued by a particularly nasty troll who posted violent and pornographic images that were so shocking that I found myself wishing I could wash my eyeballs. Finally, in an act of desperation I followed the trail of evidence and hacked into his computer. This gave me sufficient evidence to identify the miscreant and convince him to stop.

In a similar case, however, a company was being blasted by a Denial of Service attack from another company's computer that had been infected by a worm. Repeated phone calls yielded no results, so they did what I had done: broke into the offending computer.

Now here's an interesting parallel: while I was poking around the troll's computer, I found that he had also been infected by a worm. I fixed it because I didn't want to be blamed for something I didn't do. In the Denial of Service case, they too fixed the worm, using administrative powers to which they were not legally entitled. They were sued for what they did – and they lost. (No "Yay!" here.)

I wish I could wrap up this article with some cheery proclamation that things are getting better, or some helpful tid-bit of advice, but I can't. People (if that's the right word) keep writing viruses, and jackasses (ah, there's the right word) keep sending spam. Online creeps steal bandwidth and sneer at copyright notices. We've got a long way to go before justice comes to the net.

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