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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 @04:46PM (#39565795)
    How is this not libel/slander, which is not protected speech?
  • I think the key... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Omnifarious (11933) * <eric-slash@omnif ... s.org minus city> on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @04:47PM (#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.

  • extortion? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by v1 (525388) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @04:48PM (#39565823) Homepage Journal

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

  • Wrong Career Path (Score:2, Insightful)

    by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @04:49PM (#39565833) Homepage Journal
    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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @04:53PM (#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.

  • by Obfuscant (592200) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @04:59PM (#39565947)

    Unless there is derogatory content hosted on there with the intent of associating said content with said toddler, I'm not sold.

    From TFA: "Perhaps due to the negative attention, Cox took down the content she had started publishing on the nataliarandazza.com site."

  • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @04:59PM (#39565949) Homepage Journal

    But smearing? Unless there is derogatory content hosted on there with the intent of associating said content with said toddler, I'm not sold.

    Normally I would agree with you; however, considering Ms. Cox's prior attempts at blackmailing the child's father (among others, according to TFA), I think it's fair to say that the likelihood that harassment was her intent is pretty obvious.

  • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @04:59PM (#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 CriminalNerd (882826) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:11PM (#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 Sarten-X (1102295) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:16PM (#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.

  • by hey! (33014) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:17PM (#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*.

  • by LordLucless (582312) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:35PM (#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.

  • Protection racket (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fermion (181285) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @05:59PM (#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.

  • by gstrickler (920733) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:13PM (#39566701)

    Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of your speech. She can say those things, and they can sue for libel/slander/defamation, and in this case, she also engaged in extortion, which has it's own set of penalties.

  • by tnk1 (899206) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:21PM (#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 ChrisMaple (607946) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:33PM (#39566865)

    the US was founded by puritans

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

  • by sirwired (27582) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @06:39PM (#39566945)

    Right on.

    WTF is up with the inflammatory headline: "Free Speech or Journalism"? Defamation, extortion, and libel is not now, and never has been, any kind of protected speech. It doesn't matter if you do it in your local newspaper, leaflets you hand out throughout the neighborhood, the corner soapbox, or a network of libelous websites.

  • by thesandtiger (819476) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @07:06PM (#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.

  • by Pfhorrest (545131) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @09:51PM (#39568181) Homepage Journal

    Prior restraint: "You are not allowed to say X. If you say X, we will punish you."

    'Consequences': "You said X. You are not allowed to say X. We will now punish you."

    This "you are not free from the consequences of your speech" bullshit is just that, utter bullshit. OF COURSE you will not be legally protected from some consequences of your speech... if people dislike you, stop speaking to you, stop doing business with you, stop associating with you, or generally do anything which they have the freedom to do, because they dislike your speech, then you have (or should have) no legal recourse. You do not have a right to be popular or liked or have anybody listen to or agree with you, etc.

    But freedom of speech is ENTIRELY ABOUT freedom from LEGAL consequences of speech. If you can be punished for saying certain things, then you are ipso facto NOT FREE to say those things. Whether the state warns you ahead of time that you will be punished or not is irrelevant.

    As far as blanket protection goes:

    "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech" (plus "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States") sounds like a pretty blanket protection against legal consequences for speech anywhere in the United States at least.

  • Re:That's Dumb (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CPNABEND (742114) on Tuesday April 03, 2012 @10:01PM (#39568223) Homepage
    Nope. This is "Nice place you have here... It would be a shame if something happened to it".
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @01:43AM (#39569075)

    Sounds more like Tortuous interference in business.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tortious_interference

    What she did was nothing new, and its been tried and made illegal many centuries ago and has a long tradition of being enforced against companies.

    "An early, perhaps the earliest, instance of recognition of this tort occurred in Garret v. Taylor, 79 Eng. Rep. 485 (K.B. 1620). In that case, the defendant drove customers away from the plaintiff’s quarry by threatening them with mayhem and also threatening to “vex [them] with suits.” The King's Bench court said that “the defendant threatened violence to the extent of committing an assault upon ... customers of the plaintiff ... whereupon ‘they all desisted from buying.’’ The court therefore upheld a judgment for the plaintiff."

    I believe the Opera lawsuit against Microsoft was based on this. Recall when Microsoft made their websites deliberately return corrupt data to Opera browsers. Whereas the normal website it returns to Internet Explorer would work fine on Opera, these corrupt pages wouldn't work on either IE or Opera. It created the false impression that Opera couldn't render websites properly, and Microsoft paid out $10 million to settle the lawsuit.

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