net.wars: Doppelgangland

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 29 September 2006

One of the many great ways the Net has democratized society is in making it possible for even very obscure, ordinary people to be impersonated.

Wendy M Grossman

There is, for example, a local architect at one of my tennis clubs. I was looking up his email address one day, and discovered that someone had bought up the .co.uk version of his .com domain and filled it up with a lot of nasty comments and purported supporting evidence for same alleging that the tennis-playing architect was incompetent, dishonest, and generally worth avoiding.

As you might expect, the backstory was one of those ordinary garden-variety disputes in which a disgruntled, slightly obsessive former client decides, when the profession's governing body declined to support his claim, to take matters into his own hands and make life difficult. The architect thought of suit, then eventually decided it wasn't a good way to spend his time or money.

The site's gone now, though the domain is still owned by the disgruntled one. But it has, to our friend's relief, dropped off the list of hits Google produces when the architect's name is typed in. Because, really, the problem wasn't that the site existed; it was that it was way too easy to find.

Now, see, I can understand this story, sort of. Who among us hasn't gotten annoyed enough now and then to want to vent what we believe to be our righteous anger in this way? Most of us never do it, of course, but the desire is recognizably human.

So were the motives of the woman I wrote about a couple of years ago who claimed to be Martina Navratilova on a fan message board. It was pretty clear what she wanted: attention and the glory of being the person everyone was there to admire. She was exposed, apologized, and now is on good terms with the rest of the board. I remember, also, a fake David Letterman turning up on alt.fan.letterman in 1994.

It's worth noting that despite people's willingness to fall for scams like the above, it's also been noticeable (to me, at least) throughout the years that when someone famous really does show up on Usenet there's a lot of sc

epticism and often even some checking. It does happen, of course: M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart likes to hobnob with the fans on alt.tv.mash, and at one time a Frasier producer or two used to hang around alt.tv.frasier.

But what earthly point could there possibly be in impersonating me on Usenet?

It all started, I don't know, a month ago, when someone posted a message such that my email address (or, at least, the one I use for Usenet) appeared in the "From" line. The message itself was the sort of thing I'd normally just ignore, if it came from someone else and certainly wouldn't have posted myself.

I felt, for a brief moment, like Laurence Godfrey: defamation through misrepresentation. On the other hand, what can you do about it?

In Godfrey's case, he sued Demon Internet for not taking the postings in question off his servers when he asked them to. Demon settled, laying the groundwork for today's "notice and takedown" rules. But Godfrey is a serial litigator, while by contrast, I like an untroubled life.

What is a little more disturbing is that Google indexes all its extensive Usenet archives by email address.

The postings in question pop up in a search right alongside the ones I've legitimately made. Even though there are some giveaways that make the fakes easy to spot if you're paying even a modicum of attention, Google Groups can't do it. Nor is it clear whether, under Google Groups' terms and conditions, I actually have the right to remove them: when you select a posting for removal you are required to agree that you made the original posting and therefore have the right to remove it. But, of course, that's the point: I didn't make the postings. Plus, even if you get them removed from Google's cache there are all the other caches and public archives lying around in which they'll still appear.

I don't, of course, like it. I occasionally write about tennis, and I've interviewed one of the players - someone who gets trashed in one of the fake postings, as "ugly." She's not – and she's entertaining, hard-working, and fun. I would hate to have her think I'd said such a thing.

Fortunately, Usenet, these days, is very much a minority pastime, and when you're in the news as much as these women are I doubt you go looking for more stuff to read about yourself in obscure online forums. (On a DVD I've been listening to recently, the comic actress Vicki Lewis observes that she had to give up reading comments about herself and her work online: "It's like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer.")

To be fair, in my egocentric haste to simplify the story, I've left out the fact that several other, even more obscure, people on the newsgroup were impersonated, too. Which, you know, is kind of too bad. Otherwise, I could be flattered, right? I'm that important.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).