Before the World Wide Web, people unhappy with individual companies
were reduced to convincing a news
organization they had a legitimate gripe or standing around handing
out leaflets at corporate headquarters.
Now, all it takes is a weekend coding some HTML files and every
complaint or concern they've ever had is
instantly available to millions.
"There was the 'Kmart Sucks' site, created by a disgruntled employee
who was saying a lot of mean and nasty
things about Kmart. Then there was the First Boston site, where a
former employee published proprietary salary
figures," said Don Middleberg, whose firm protects its clients from
attacks on the Internet.
"Companies spend small fortunes to create a brand image and something
called good will," he said. "These sites
are actively destroying them."
To counter the threat, Middleberg's firm monitors the Web for what he
calls "rogue" sites, then finds the people
who created them and attempts to convince them to go off-line.
"If gentle persuasion doesn't work," he said from his New York office,
"you need to bring in the lawyers."
Over and above First Amendment concerns, threats of legal action are a
long way from the golden vision of the
Web as an democratic leveler rhapsodized about by Howard Rheingold,
who has written several books about the
ethos of the Internet.
"The Internet puts the masses back in mass media. It lets anyone
publish their manifesto for all the world to
read," Rheingold said from his home near San Francisco.
Those days are over, countered Middleberg.
"Rheingold's perceptions of where things are might have been true a
few months ago," he said. "But this is big
business. Things have changed. This is no longer a cottage industry.
Companies have spent millions of dollars
on this. They're going to fight to protect their sites."
"If the lawyers decide to go after someone and a company is willing to
spend the dollars, they certainly can
threaten and make life very difficult for people."
It's legally unclear, however, how much power companies actually have.
Merely making derogatory comments is
not illegal, said David Maher, co-chair of the subcommittee on
Internet Trademark Issues of the International
"If you have an individual who doesn't like Ford motor cars or Burger
King and says rude things about them, the
First Amendment provides quite a shield. Just because people are
saying bad things about you, you can't
necessarily stop them," he said.
Not only is truth a defense against libel, but trade libel law
requires that a company must show it actually has
been damaged, a higher standard than individuals, who must show only
that their reputations have been
damaged, Maher said.
But legal or not, even the threat might be enough to shut down smaller
sites, said Jonathan Hall, a spokesman for
the environmental group Greenpeace -- which maintains an active Web
"I wouldn't be surprised if people gave in if they got a call and were
told to 'remove this or there will be legal
action.' They might do it because they don't know their legal rights,"
Greenpeace does, which is probably why the association of nuclear
energy producers Middleberg recently
spoke to considers it such a threat.
"They are scared to death of groups like Greenpeace, who are very
clever in how they use the Net to get a
message out," Middleberg said.
Not unexpectedly, Middleberg won't name his clients, though he says
he's added eight to the list in the last six
Other public relations firms say they haven't heard of anyone using a
similar strategy. Curtis Kundred of
Fleishman Hillard International Communications deemed it a short-run
approach that will backfire in the end.
"I would hope it's not the job of a public relations firm to muscle
someone into backing down from expressing
their beliefs online," added Amy Oringel of InterActive Public
Up until now, the Web has provided a level playing field, a place
where "Joe Schmoe can have just as much
credibility as CNN," said writer Martin A. Lee, whose book "Unreliable
Sources" was an expose of the public
"Money is the great unleveler in this equation," he said. "We seem to
be in the crux of a shift, when the whole
equilibrium is shifting from 'a thousand flowers blooming' to a
corporate market. It's disturbing."
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