Take a couple of mouse potatoes and a truckload of anger, add the knack for setting up a Web site and what do you have?
Across the 'Net, new Web sites are cropping up every week dedicated to the sole purpose of "flaming" -- or electronically savaging -- corporations.
Although companies don't like to talk about it much in public, the issue is of growing concern because it presents thorny public relations problems that are difficult to resolve, in part because it is hard to shut down a Web site.
"Clearly it's a growing issue of some significance," says Don Middleberg, the CEO of the public relations firm Middleberg + Associates. "I wouldn't be surprised if there were several hundred rogue sites, and I would bet that a year from now we will be talking about thousands."
As the 'Net becomes more popular, crusaders for environmental and social causes, disgruntled consumers, former employees, and just plain malcontents and kooks have begun to realize that it offers an inexpensive way to scream their messages from the mountain top.
"It used to be a fraternity of people who thought the same way and did the same things," says Middleberg. "As it becomes more popular we see different kinds of people coming into it, and people are figuring out they don't have to spend thousands of dollars to take on the 'big, bad major corporation.'"
Consider the "Smith Barney page," for example. The gripe site's home page features a portion of the brokerage's "making money the old fashioned way" slogan next to an image of a pickpocket stealing a wallet from the trousers of a passerby. In another part of the site, viewers can find news stories about the firm's alleged involvement in cases of securities fraud, sexual harassment, and other questionable practices.
Tough stuff for a nationwide brokerage that depends on the trust of the public to win over investment dollars. The site was set up by a presumably disgruntled former employee named Michael Lissack, who was allegedly fired by the firm in 1995 after accusing Smith Barney of bilking clients in a complex interest-rate swap, according to articles and other material on the site. Lissack declined to return phone calls Friday.
At an anti-CS First Boston site, a disgruntled ex-employee presented what was billed as confidential salary information regarding investment banking staff. The McSpotlight site, meanwhile, sports a laundry list of gripes against McDonald's, ranging from environmental and workplace condition complaints, to criticisms of the nutritional value of the fast food chain's product.
The Angry Organization, the mother of all gripe sites, is the self-described "crankiest site on the Net" featuring anger "from angry people all over the world." Angry Organization contains an alphabetical list of companies in which visitors contribute their favorite complaints about the firms.
What's a corporation to do? Many have turned to legal actions against the sites. Despite popular myths to the contrary, the much-vaunted free-wheeling nature of cyberspace offers Web surfers no special protection when it comes to defamation and libel laws. "Everybody thinks cyberspace is the wild frontier, but in terms of defamation, the laws are not that much different," notes Michael Sullivan, a lawyer specializing in First Amendment issues at the law firm Ross, Dixon and Masbach in Washington, D.C. "The courts have applied the same rules."
Nevertheless, First Amendment protection of free speech allows commentators considerable latitude to beat up on corporations. One sure-fire defense against defamation, libel or slander (the spoken form of libel): making a clear statement of fact.
The courts have also carved out an exception for "hyperbolic speech," or statements that are impossible to verify or cannot be interpreted as a statement of fact because they are too broad, vague or exaggerated. Saying that a person "has the worst judgment of anyone who ever lived," would fall into this category, because it would be impossible to prove, notes Sullivan.
Third, of course, to be on the wrong side of the law, a statement must adversely affect the reputation of the target.
Because of the tricky nature of libel law, a few companies take a circuitous route. Sometimes the mere threat of a lawsuit does the trick. A Web site dedicated to bashing Kmart, for example, toned down its approach somewhat by removing designs that were too similar to the Kmart logo and taking the Kmart colors off the site after being threatened with a suit, Middleberg says. Nevertheless, the "K-sucks" site is still a clear reference to Kmart. Kmart declined to return phone calls inquiring about the company's policy of dealing with critical Web sites.
Lissack modified his Smith Barney site after the brokerage threatened to sue him for trademark infringement, according to information posted at that site. "We have asked Lissack's attorneys to cease using the trademark, and I guess they responded," said Bob Connor, a senior vice president at Smith Barney. "We don't pay much attention to it."
McDonald's, which declined to respond to Money Daily's requests for information, has started a libel action in the UK against the McSpotlight site, which is based in that country, notes Middleberg.
Since comments are often posted anonymously or because a critic operating in cyberspace may have limited assets, some targets of 'Net flames have sued the service providers who carry the offending Web site -- with varying degrees of success.
"The courts have gone two ways on that," says Sullivan. In a New York case against CompuServe, courts ruled that unless the online service provider had notice that there was defamatory material, it is not liable, he notes.
In the Straton Oakmont Inc. & Daniel Porush v. Prodigy Services Company case, however, Prodigy was held liable for users' bulletin board postings because its censorship policy amounted to editorial control, and therefore editorial responsibility.
"One of the reasons the court treated Prodigy differently is because Prodigy had marketed itself as a family-oriented service and they said they would police the bulletin boards," explains Sullivan. "So the court said they would hold them to a publisher's standard." In the Straton case, forged postings accused Straton Oakmont of cheating clients. Since the person posting the defamatory message could not be found, Straton Oakmont sued Prodigy.
Perhaps because of the Straton ruling, many servers take a hands off approach to content. "It's a tricky issue, but we're pretty much not going to censor anybody, no," said Emmanuel Kwahk, the president of Interport, an internet service provider in New York City. "We see ourselves as a carrier instead of a content provider. Our policy is that people can put up what they want. We don't police our site, but if we are made aware of something illegal on our site, then we would step in."
Says Middleberg: the best way for a company to deal with a hostile Web site is to "reach your antagonist, try to establish a dialogue and resolve the issues. If that can't be done and you are being legitimately libeled, then you need to figure out how to work a legal strategy." Corporations should be careful not to come off as being too overbearing. "Somebody soon is going to attack a 12-year-old kid in Utah, and that company is going to look like a fool."
Some companies, though, see the gripe-sites as a welcome opportunity to learn more about customer dissatisfaction. "Our first concern is to listen and take action on what customers are saying about us on issues that they want resolved," says Lisa Kim, a spokeswoman for Ameritech.
A sense of humor may help, as well. Middleberg, who says he has an undeserved reputation as a hired gun who goes out and tries to shut down hostile Web sites on behalf of corporations, has provoked a gripe-site that takes aim directly at him.
"Making sure the only PR you get is what you want!" shouts the Middleberg + Associates-bashing Web site. "We specialize in helping corporations act like spoiled brats ... We can ensure your corporate power and greed through force, if necessary."
Middleberg takes the attack in stride. "I think its pretty funny. I like people who have guts and feel passionate about things so I wrote back and said, 'I think your site is pretty cool and keep up the good fight.' You have to have a sense of humor."
Over at Angry Organization, Web site managers seem to have little problem accepting criticism of themselves, either. Just look at the "angry at organizations like angry.org" entry. "Civilization and things like the Internet depend on cooperation, not a bunch of angry people who KNOW that they are right," it says. But then again, what would the 'Net be without a good flame or two?
Reporter Associate: Tripp Reynolds
Correction: Money Daily for July 13-14 ("Got a gripe? There are plenty of places to vent on the 'Net") stated that McDonald's has begun legal action against a UK-based gripe site called "McSpotlight." Both McDonald's and McSpotlight say no such action has been filed. McSpotlight adds that it is based in Holland, not the UK.