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Smearing Toddler Reputations Via Internet: Free Speech Or Extortion? 213

Posted by samzenpus
from the class-act dept.
retroworks writes "Crystal Cox, a Montana woman who calls herself an 'investigative journalist,' was slapped with a $2.5-million judgment last year for defaming an investment firm and one of its lead partners. Cox had taken control of the Google footprint of Obsidian Finance and its principal Kevin Padrick by writing hundreds of posts about them on dozens of websites she owned, inter-linking them in ways that made them rise up in Google search results; it ruined Obsidian's business due to prospective clients being put off by the firm's seemingly terrible online reputation. After Obsidian sued Cox, she contacted them offering her 'reputation services;' for $2,500 a month, she could 'fix' the firm's reputation and help promote its business. The Forbes Article goes on to describe how she tried to similarly leverage attorneys and journalists reputations. Finding some of her targets were too well established in google rank to pester or intimidate, Cox moved to family members, reserving domain names for one of her target's 3-year-old daughter. Forbes columnist Kashmir Hill makes the case that this clearly isn't journalism, and establishes a boundary for free speech online."
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Smearing Toddler Reputations Via Internet: Free Speech Or Extortion?

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  • Seems like Libel (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bytestorm (1296659) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:46PM (#39565795)
    How is this not libel/slander, which is not protected speech?
  • I think the key... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Omnifarious (11933) * <eric-slash&omnifarious,org> on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:47PM (#39565803) Homepage Journal

    I think the key is that she offered to change it all for money. I think that's the part that should be illegal, not posting all that stuff in the first place. And threatening to post it unless you get money should be treated very similarly.

    Lastly, this, in a small way, Google's fault. Their algorithm is fooled by stuff the human curating process would've had a much harder time being fooled by.

    But I don't think we need any restraints on speech to handle this issue.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:53PM (#39565873)

      The day I learned of 'Google-bombing', I lost any confidence in their search engine.

      Libel is a criminal act, and attacking uninvolved relatives of targets deserves prosecution. Her offer to sell out proves that it was not any sort of 'search for the truth' or whatever journalistic slogan you can find.

      Fine her and close her blogs.

      • journalistic slogan

        Journalisic. Because according to TFS she's a journalis, not a journalist.

        Shitandpiss truly does the work of three men - if they're Curly, Larry & Moe.

      • by tqk (413719)

        The day I learned of 'Google-bombing', I lost any confidence in their search engine.

        Then, I learned of the Googlewhack [wikipedia.org], and understood it's all about user error. Human civilization is powered by user error.

        Fine her and close her blogs.

        Tubal ligation comes to mind too.

    • by Nidi62 (1525137)

      I think the key is that she offered to change it all for money. I think that's the part that should be illegal, not posting all that stuff in the first place.

      So you would have no problem with me posting a lot of stuff about you online so that whenever you were searched for it would link to posts talking about how you committed financial fraud or stole social security checks from old ladies or got caught watching women undress through binoculars (ok, from a quick glance she only accused the guy of doing the first thing, but still, it's an example)? That is pretty much the textbook definition of libel. And I would say that the use of libel in an effort to extort

      • Libel laws are not 'new' laws. But yes, I should've mentioned them in my original post. It tends to be really hard to get a libel charge to stick. I don't know enough about this case to know if it will be easy or not.

    • by Mabhatter (126906)

      That's called blackmail is it not?? Or does the law only apply to "illegal" activities? It's clearly extortion because she is asking for money.

      The real world has plenty of unemployed willing to break some kneecaps. It's mean to say that, but sometimes things need some "real world" reminders.

      • Wouldn't blackmail be "pay up or I release this information"?

        She has already released the information, that is not what she is asking money for.
        • Wouldn't blackmail be "pay up or I release this information"? She has already released the information, that is not what she is asking money for.

          I think it has to be true (or half-true) and a secret for it to be blackmail. She's just making stuff up.

          • by rtb61 (674572)

            That just results in random targets. So why Obsidian Finance. Likely she has found some dirt on companies exploits and exaggerates that and attempts to make it go away, basically a budding Public Relations specialist. No better or worse than what PR firms already do.

            This straight up resembles normal everyday US politics. I would guess it is time to start cleaning stuff up from the top down.

            Suggestions defamation should be adjusted to be statements of fact must be provable as true and loser pays court c

        • by tnk1 (899206) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @07:21PM (#39566779)

          You are right. This is what is called a protection racket. Prove that you can hurt the person, suggest that they pay you for not hurting them.

          Only in this case, she didn't just send a heavy to look menacing, she actually did the equivalent of a courtesy working over to demonstrate.

    • by vakuona (788200)

      Yes, lets blame Google. But see how well that human curating worked out for Yahoo. The internet is too large for human curators on search engines. The only workable alternative is to allow people to vote down websites in the site results, but then you are exposing people to another kind of extortion. Imagine a botnet operator demanding money from people to _not_ use their millions strong botnet to vote down your site.

    • by Caratted (806506) *
      It's still slander, and regarding her "reputation services," extortion. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, we don't need any more restraints on speech.

      Civil lawsuit, takedown notice, done. The law already works. No story here... besides /. giving Forbes more free advertising.
    • by CriminalNerd (882826) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:11PM (#39566071)

      > Lastly, this, in a small way, Google's fault. Their algorithm is fooled by stuff the human curating process would've had a much harder time being fooled by.

      I think the inherent problem is figuring out whether posts made on several websites are made by the same person or more than one person with the same name (or different names + same person, etc.). And even if it's not one person behind the attack, it could be a group of people conspiring to do the same thing (and then you ask where you draw the line between "purposefully harmful" and "honest message that needs to get out").

      I don't think a human curating process would be able to comb through as much data as quickly OR be able to do a better job than Google at figuring out whether a set of websites is run by people trying to undermine the spirit and the assumptions that the search algorithm makes or if it's an actual trend that's starting to emerge.

      In my opinion, blaming Google would be like blaming a technical solution for not solving a social problem. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to solve the problem, just that blaming it for not solving an inherently hard problem is just too...knee-jerk-like in the reaction. If a bunch of ACs starting attacking you and talking shit about you while criticizing your post(s), you wouldn't be able to confidently say "this is all done by one guy" or "a lot of people have legitimate reason to criticize my post".

      The headline is too alarmist anyway for an issue with a known solution: If it was one guy paying off several sockpuppets to go around the town and spread nasty rumours (or just gossip a lot with people who can't shut up about "scandals" over coffee or bridge) about a specific person or group that are false and ask the target/victim to pony up money to squash the false rumours, it'd be a clear-cut case of blackmail and libel. I really doubt there is a freedom of speech issue at all.

    • by LordLucless (582312) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:35PM (#39566317)

      I think the key is that she offered to change it all for money. I think that's the part that should be illegal, not posting all that stuff in the first place.

      No, they should both be illegal. She should be charged with libel for posting malicious untruths, and with extortion for trying to extract money from her marks by ceasing her libel.

    • by yurtinus (1590157) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:55PM (#39566539)
      No, that isn't the key here at all. If she simply had decided she didn't like the name of the company and did the same thing, it is *still* defamation whether money was involved or not. The request for money to fix it just adds additional *criminal* acts of racketeering and extortion to the civil charges of defamation. The existing laws here were plenty.

      Google really isn't involved either. If I decided to defame you by posting "Caution: Known Cow Fondler" posters with your picture on every power pole in town, do you blame the utility company? No, you blame me and sue me for defamation. Trying to hold a third party responsible because their algorithm was gamed by one person involved in criminal acts is exactly the restraint on free speech that you want to avoid. Hold people responsible for their actions, but leave the tool makers alone.

      As another poster here noted: everything is working as intended, though likely with the major wrinkle that the business she sank in her scheme will probably never recover their losses or that $2.5m judgement.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Omnifarious (11933) *

        I think Google has a responsibility to do as much as they can to avoid having their algorithm gamed. But I don't think the responsibility is a legal responsibility in any way. It's a moral responsibility. And ultimately, it's something they need to do in order to maintain their edge in search quality, so it's a fiduciary responsibility as well. But it's not a legal responsibility.

        I don't think your power pole analogy as very apt. Google has a lot more to do with the message getting out than the power compan

        • by yurtinus (1590157) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @08:01PM (#39567139)
          My point is that you don't hold the tool maker at fault when somebody misuses their tools. From a business standpoint you're right, they absolutely should make their algorithm as robust as possible. But a tool is designed for a task, there is only so much you can do to design in ways to keep it from being mis-used and it's an uphill battle against diminishing returns. The problem is, once you start saying they have an ethical responsibility to prevent that sort of gaming you end up in a mindset where a lawyer could convince a jury of it and hold them legally responsible *and* it draws attention away from the actual malicious acts by the perpetrator.
        • Google agrees, that's they the impose penalties [slashdot.org] (even on themselves [slashdot.org]) when anyone is caught gaming the system.

        • Google actually does work hard at keeping people from gaming the system. That being said, however, no system is perfect and there *will* be some people who figure out how to exploit it. It's inevitable and can't be stopped completely. The best Google can do is make it as tricky as possible so few people can accomplish this.

    • by thesandtiger (819476) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @08:06PM (#39567185)

      No, it's entirely the fault of the person behaving badly.

      Google takes steps to accou t for people like this, but the system isn't and cannot be perfect. Blaming the tools people use to commit crimes - even if just "in a small way" - shifts blame from the actual responsible party.

      If I get a gun and shoot someone, is that, even I a small way, Smith & Wessons fault for making the gun? The dealers fault for selling it to me? The ammo makers fault for selling me the funds? The victims vault for being in a situation where I could shoot them? No. It would be my fault because I am the person who did something wrong. Without me the crime wouldn't have happened, period, full stop.

      Now, if you meant to say, "tools like google let people do this kind of thing more easily, I wonder if there is a way to limit the harm bad actors can do without crippling tht tool" then that's one thing. But fault? No, sorry, that's entirely on the person who decided to do the behavior in question.

    • I think the key is that she offered to change it all for money. I think that's the part that should be illegal, not posting all that stuff in the first place. And threatening to post it unless you get money should be treated very similarly.

      No, it's still liable; extortion gets added when you ask for money to "fix" the problem. Just because it's an online post does't mean it automatically gets a free pass form existing laws.

      Lastly, this, in a small way, Google's fault. Their algorithm is fooled by stuff the human curating process would've had a much harder time being fooled by.

      But I don't think we need any restraints on speech to handle this issue.

      It isn't a constraint on free speech, she's free to post whatever she wants and suffer the consequences if it breaks the law; just as someone standing on a street corner would be liable for what they say even if they’re free to say it.

    • by tqk (413719)

      Lastly, this, in a small way, [is] Google's fault.

      Not fair. Pretty much any system can be gamed. Humans excel at sneaky, underhanded stuff. Google can't change that. It's practically human nature. They can try to minimize its effect, but it's always going to be part of the mix.

    • by Kalriath (849904)

      No, deliberately lying with intent to smear someone's reputation should be illegal whether money is involved or not - not to be confused with claiming things under a good faith belief they're true. It's not free speech, and never has been. The restraints you claim aren't needed already exist, and should continue exist.

  • extortion? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by v1 (525388) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:48PM (#39565823) Homepage Journal

    I've never seen a case of where extortion was successfully defended by claiming freedom of speech. Anyone have any examples?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Do campaign contributions count?

  • Wrong Career Path (Score:2, Insightful)

    by CanHasDIY (1672858)
    She should have gone into law "enforcement," where behavior such as extortion and slander are just tools of the trade.

    Politics would have been an equally viable career choice.
  • I don't recall seeing those actions previously becoming considering synonymous. Creepy, perhaps. Extortion, quite possible. But smearing? Unless there is derogatory content hosted on there with the intent of associating said content with said toddler, I'm not sold.
  • Marc Randazza. When it comes to free speech, he's a champ. Couldn't agree with anyone more. When it comes to RIAA, he's one of the assholes who writes blogposts about how it's just fine to have huge judgments against bittorrent pirates. Ultimately he's a smarmy lawyer, but sometimes he's right. Like this time. He's dead right to defend his daughter over this. Crystal Cox should probably be sucking some cox.
  • Awesome addendum there, samzenpus.

  • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:59PM (#39565957)

    Well duh. That boundary has existed for over 200 years. It's called libel (ruining a person's reputation through the written word).

  • by Sarten-X (1102295) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:16PM (#39566119) Homepage

    You have the right to express any opinion you want, but you do not have a right to make others' lives worse with your speech. In essence, it's that simple.

    Sure, you can write "FUCK" in 10-foot-tall letters on the side of your house, if you can explain the opinion being expressed.

    Go ahead and rant about the federal government being too powerful, but expect that others will argue it's not powerful enough.

    Proclaim loudly your support for extremist suicide bombers, but don't harass their victims.

    This doesn't seem too difficult to me. Of course, you're welcome to express any differing opinion.

    • You have the right to express any opinion you want, but you do not have a right to make others' lives worse with your speech. In essence, it's that simple.

      So, if we found a politician doing something corrupt and evil, we can't make his life worse by telling people?

  • by hey! (33014) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:17PM (#39566127) Homepage Journal

    "Free speech" doesn't mean "speech privileged from legal consequences."

    I can't keep you from having a website because you're a scuzzy little libeler, but when you *do* libel me I sure as hell can go after you for that.

    Free speech doesn't give you the right to slander someone. It doesn't give you the right to disclose trade secrets, or publish intimate details of private persons' lives. It doesn't give you the right to disclose sensitive national defense information, or incite immediate violence against somebody (Spike Lee needs to learn this).

    What free speech amounts to is the right to say what you have to say then dare the government to do something about it. Surprised? Well, that's freedom for you. It doesn't come without *risk*.

    • Let's be very explicit about this: freedom of speech means that the government can't put its resources into harming you because you said something someone in the government didn't like. There are significant exceptions to this, all of which relate to speech indicating imminent or on-going criminal activity. Furthermore, you can't lie about somebody.

      What it also means is that private entities - corporations, people, etc - are exempt from laws of Freedom of Speech, because by definition, they are not the gove

    • by LordLucless (582312) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:40PM (#39566371)

      What free speech amounts to is the right to say what you have to say then dare the government to do something about it.

      No, that's freedom from prior restraint. It's part of the overall concept of free speech, but not the totality of it.

      Freedom of Speech is poorly defined, but it generally means that you can say what you want, apart from a few specifically defined instances. Think of it as "default allow" for speech. Basically, if there are no laws against what you are saying, then the government can't punish you for saying it.

      That might sound like a truism, but historically, it isn't. Historically, governments have arrested (and imprisoned, and executed) people for saying things they don't like, regardless of what the law says.

      • Basically, if there are no laws against what you are saying, then the government can't punish you for saying it.

        It's a little bit more than that. It means that no legislative body can write a law that can punish someone for saying something that offends someone in government, or that someone in government disagrees with. Porn is weird in that area, but... hey, the US was founded by puritans.

        • by ChrisMaple (607946) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @07:33PM (#39566865)

          the US was founded by puritans

          and Baptists. and Anglicans/Episcopaleans. and Quakers. and Presbyterians. and Methodists. and Deists. and atheists (Ethan Allen).

          • Atheists were damn rare. Almost as rare today. Deists were much more common among the landed gentry in the latter stages of the colonization, but not really the reason people left the country (Europe). Anglicans were mostly in the US for economic reasons. Not sure about the rest. But the puritans really came to found a better place. For some reason, their approach to morality stuck. Sad, but true.

      • by hey! (33014)

        No, that's freedom from prior restraint. It's part of the overall concept of free speech, but not the totality of it.

        I understand that, but it's really the important bit. No concept of free speech works without freedom from prior restraint, and any concept of free speech that includes freedom from prior restraint can work, if people are willing to risk standing up to the government.

        Freedom of Speech is poorly defined, but it generally means that you can say what you want, apart from a few specifically defined instances. Think of it as "default allow" for speech. Basically, if there are no laws against what you are saying, then the government can't punish you for saying it.

        Unfortunately that's not much of a guide to what's allowed. To say something is allowed if it is not denied is logically equivalent to saying it's denied if it is not allowed. It'd be more precise to say that speech is allowed unless it does

    • by Hentes (2461350)
      So you define free speech as being free to speak anything unless it's illegal? Because that definition fits almost any activity, and does not provide any protection for free speech.
      • by hey! (33014)

        No, I define it as being free to speak, but not to be free from the consequences of my speech. Depending on the consequences that speech may be illegal. It isn't hard to come up with kinds of speech that are and should be illegal, but I can't stop you from engaging in them.

  • If it was my kid my wife would go over and kick the crap out of her. Then when we were taken to trial we would present all of the information and count on a jury of our peers to let us go.

  • by kamapuaa (555446) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:26PM (#39566225) Homepage

    As a form of revenge, I'm been spamming the internet claiming she's a steroid-using track and field athlete from a decade ago.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Please don't. If you do that, there will be false information on the Internet, and if that happens the Internet will become useless.

      • Wait, I thought that the moment a statement went on the Internet it automatically became true.

        In an unrelated matter, please nobody post "This statement is False" or the Internet may implode.

        • by iphinome (810750)
          If something posted on the internet is said on fox news it becomes false. Paradox time.
  • Protection racket (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fermion (181285) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:59PM (#39566581) Homepage Journal
    I will only charge you 1 quid to not walk in front of your business and be annoying. You can't do anything about it because I am a public right of way, I am moving, so not loitering, and am dressed through not fully and not attractively. Furthermore the metered parking in front of your shop is available to all the paying public, and the fact that I park my five beat up dodge darts has nothing to do with me trying to shut you down.

    Of course doing either thing individually, asking for a dollar, or being a nuisance, is not illegal. The two, together, however, would be.

    Of this is covered under the RICO act in which multiple acts committed over a certain time period is classified as special criminal activity. In this case it seems plausible that extortion and blackmail may have been committed, and so there may be an RICO violation. It seems that RICO may apply because the internet, like the telephone, is considered a interstate device.

    I think anyone, not just journalist and bloggers, deserve the benefit of the doubt when reporting what can be broadly classified as defensible facts, or even opinions. Freedom of speech say that we can go out onto the public pulpit in the public space and say pretty much what we want. There should be few if any restrictions on this.

    What triggers a regulatory environment is when we are directly paid for reporting these facts and opinions. In such cases some responsibility should be imposed. If you are paid a million dollars a week to state your opinion though a commercial enterprise, funded by ads on radio, tv, or even google, then those statement should undergo some scrutiny, even be liable to prosecution, because it plausible, even likely, you are being paid to mold commercial allegiances, which is not illegal in itself, but is regulated. I mean if it is illegal for me to make a commercial stating that you will get rich investing in gold(as opposed to saying that gold is rising, so buying gold could be a safe investment), then why is it okay for someone to spend three hours a day convincing the public that the most secure currency in the world is going to fall(inflation has not bee an issue and is not rising) and therefore the only safe thing to do is to call this company that will sell you overpriced gold, that may not even exist.

  • ...it's gonna pay off once this shit goes mainstream.

  • A. So who wants to email Crystal Cox with an expensive offer to have this slashdot article removed in order to protect her reputation?

    B. Crystal Cox is a good name for a very high end line of dildos

    C. Have you seen this person's website [crystalcox.com]? It only manages to make you hate her more (enough so that you stop caring about the fact that she is also completely mentally ill).

  • Would it be so bad if three year olds weren't so damn delicate? I mean... wouldn't we all be a little better off if three year olds were tougher, smarter, and perhaps took a little responsibility for their online reputations? I like three year olds as much as the next post-neo tech poster/troll, but as often as not they do tend to toddle around like they have no idea what's going on or like they own the place. Maybe a little sand and rock tumbling might smooth their edginess, so the next time they drop thei
  • Slander is obviously defined under law, and as noted in TFA she was arrested for it. The free speech issue, I think, is whether reserving someone else's child's domain name is protected speech. I suspect it is protected, but as a parent the idea of having to protect my children's online rep seems quite creepy.
    • by Kalriath (849904)

      She registered it then promptly filled it with slander and libel (which she removed when his attention was drawn in her direction). Definitely not free speech.

  • by droopus (33472) * on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @11:10PM (#39568267)

    I had the dubious honor of having to deal with this piece of shit about two years ago.

    Many years ago, I worked on a project called Movielink [wikipedia.org] which was one of the first "download now, watch later" movie services, originally under the auspices of Sony Pictures. We launched a beta site in 2001, and I left to work on other projects.

    Ten years later, I was contacted by one of the (ex) Sony Pictures folks, asking for help with a net stalker. All he had was a bunch of threatening emails, one of which had been sent from a standard mail client not Hush or a remailer. The IP was pretty easy, since it pointed to a group of properties (on one big plot) all owned by this Cox woman. (150 Grave Creek Rd, Eureka, MT 59917, 710 Grave Creek Rd, Eureka, MT 59917, 830 Grave Creek Rd Eureka, MT 59917) Once uncovered, she pulled out the stops and registered every possible permutation of my friend's name with "fuck" preceding or appended to each name. She must have registered fifty domains, and was making ridiculous claims about patent theft, and directly asking my friend for money to "shut down her investigative efforts."

    We got lucky, I guess. In the cleartext email, she directly threatened my friend that she would "ruin him just for fun." Since she was in court with Obsidian, I wrote an amicus (jailhouse lawyer, remember? B) and promised I would send it to the Court and Obsidian's counsel the next day if she didn't transfer every domain with my friends name to him immediately. No threats. We never heard from her again, but every domain was transferred to my friend.

    Her site still tops her own Google results. Why is this still a civil issue?

    • Wow. That woman is scum. I've never before used that word to describe another human being, but I think she's as deserving as any.

  • This story is clearly not about censorship, which the gagged man would seem to indicate it is. As an earlier poster pointed out the second part of the headline is misleading. But in truth, there can be no controversy here. No free speech is being muzzled.

    The story appears to me to be about trolling... with a for-profit twist. Is there a little troll logo? If not one might come in handy. These days a lot of trolling takes place... on the news, in politics. Pundits, politicians, authors, 'experts', preac

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