Computer jocks like Rodney Fournier are showing Corporate America the dark side of the World Wide Web.
Fournier, 30, was fired from his systems programming job at Kmart last fall, but he's found a very 90's way to take revenge: He designed and launched a Web site on the Internet titles Kmart Sucks.
On it, he recounts his story: He was fired after linking the official Kmart Internet home page to his own personal Web page, which included sexually suggestive material. He also posts messages - often anonymous - from Kmart employees unhappy with the discounter. He's had 9,000 visitors since he started the site after losing his job in November.
Kmart is not alone. McDonald's is battling bad PR on the Web. Wal-Mart is plagued by an Intenet huckster spreading a "How to Rip-Off Wal-Mart" gospel. Hasbro was horrified to discover an eye-popping adults-only Website named Candyland - the same name as the toymaker's popular children's game.
In the past year, businesses have rushed to get on the Internet - especially the World Wide Web, the graphically based portion of the global computer network. Last month, 25% of U.S. companies had their own Internet prescence. Retailers and marketeers embrace it as cheap, high profile publicity.
But many are discovering what technology companies have known for years: The Internet can a rough neighbourhood. Critics, disgruntled employees and hucksters now have a cheap forum with an expanding audience. And corporations are scrambling to deal with them.
"Big companies are used to being in control of information related to them. The recipients of that message have had very little opportunity to respond," says Fred Cate, an Indiana University law professor who specializes in electronic information law. "The Internet is a place where everyone is as effective a speaker as they are a listener."
Kmart officials confirm Fournier was fired for violating its Internet policies - using the official Kmart page to promote his own personal page and receiving sexually explicit images. They aren't amused by his cyber-antics.
"Our lawyers have contacted him and instructed him to stop misusing our logo and our name," says Kmart spokeswoman Shawn Kahle. Fournier has made some changes to the page. He now calls it The Mart Sucks and he uses a blue K instead of a red one. But he has no plans to quit his Kmart bashing. In fact he's starting another web site, called Corporate America Sucks.
The lack of legal precedent for the Internet makes battling Fournier a challenge, says Kahle. In the brave new world of cyberlaw, its unclear what, if anything, Fournier is guilty of. "This is a new problem - sometimes its legal, sometimes it's a public relations issue - but it's not one that will go away soon," she says.
Other Internet hotspots:
"Corporations will have to be more accountable because
their critics have this new medium in which they can expose them to the
whole world for very little money,"
says McSpotlight's Franny Armstrong.
Expect more anti-corporate vigilantes on the Web, says Gary Arlen, Internet expert and president of Arlen Communications, a technology consulting firm. "There are lots of trap doors in the Internet business and corporations haven't discovered half of them."
Companies are using several laws to protect themselves from cyberbashing. Kmart and Hasbro turned to trademark infringement.
But legal experts say courts will do little to silence Internet critics as they exercise their free speech rights.
"Everyone is waiting to see what the courts decide. The thinking in the industry is that a lot of what's going on will be protected by the First Amendment," says Frank Connolly, an expert in Internet legal affairs and professor at American University. "But the First Amendment is not a global right. So we really don't know for certain."
Meanwhile, companies will have to get out of their legal departments and get on-line, Cate says. Many companies may follow Summit's Muller, getting into the Internet discourse themselves. "America Online has been very creative in handling this kind of complaint," Cate says. "If a company or individual complains, their response is often to offer a free trial subscription. Here's 10 free hours. Get out there and yell back.