To : ALL
Below is an informative article published in the Orlando Sentinel today.
"Be wary of anonymous Web postings that criticize companies"
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on April 1, 1999.
Boy, there's a lot of bad stuff going on at ZZZ Corp. The company is cooking its books. Contrary to what its annual report says, it lost millions of dollars last year. That's not the worst of it. None of its products is Y2K compliant. Come Jan. 1, everything it makes is going to explode. I'm shorting ZZZ's stock. You should too.
Yours truly, ZDeep Throat
I could not write such things in this newspaper about a real company without presenting an enormous amount of proof to back up my allegations.
But I could post anything I want -- truth or lie -- on an Internet bulletin board and not even use my real name. People do it every day. And it's driving companies nuts.
As the Sentinel's Susan Strother reported Sunday, Amway Corp. is suing competitor Procter & Gamble, accusing it of supporting an anti-Amway Web site. As part of that lawsuit, Amway subpoenaed computer files from John Hoagland of Winter Park, another critic of the company, in an attempt to prove he is connected to P&G.
Phoenix International Ltd., a Heathrow, Florida banking-software company, is also counterattacking anonymous critics whose messages are posted on an online bulletin board hosted by Yahoo!, the Internet search-engine company. Phoenix wants Yahoo! to reveal the identities of those people.
Yahoo! hosts message boards on which people can post comments on hundreds of publicly held companies (http://messages.yahoo.com). Perusing some of those boards recently, I found plenty of comments that could make a company's chief executive officer reach for Rolaids.
"The management should be tarred and feathered in front of all of the shareholders," a critic of a local company said on one board.
On another, an anonymous critic alleged that virtually all of a local company's customers are dissatisfied with its products.
"Take heed, . . . the fecal matter is going to strike the oscillating rotor on March 16," another anonymous critic wrote, commenting on the outlook for a local company.
As far as I can tell, that date brought no disasters for the company. But, obviously, comments such as these could damage a business. And the threat only increases each day, as thousands more people gain access the Internet to read and post such messages.
The Internet is the greatest development in the dissemination of information since the invention of radio. It puts the power of the press in everyone's hands. But its plus is also a minus: Not everyone will spread information honestly and responsibly.
Should something be done to rein in nameless critics and their allegations?
As someone who works under the umbrella of the First Amendment, I shudder at any attempt to abridge free speech. Yet, I also think that no person or business should be protectionless against lies, particularly those spread by anonymous accusers.
I don't know whether the online comments by Phoenix International's anonymous critics are true or false, but I cannot argue philosophically against the company's attempts to learn the critics' identities. From a practical standpoint, though, I question whether companies should, in all but the most egregious cases, respond to remarks posted on Internet message boards.
Sometimes, objecting to a lie only lends credence to it. As Shakespeare would put it: Methinks he doth protest too much!
Also, no amount of legal threats can silence someone intent on making his or her views known on the Internet. If we can't stop a handful of people from spreading computer viruses on the Web, we certainly cannot prevent millions from spreading words.
The best defense against the dissemination of falsehoods is an audience educated enough to judge the credibility of the information it receives.
We must repeatedly remind people to consider the source of anything they find while surfing the Web.