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PR firm declares war on 'rogue' web sites (Jun 10, 1996)

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PR firm declares war on 'rogue' web sites, Copyright (C) 1996, Copyright (C) 1996 The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (Jun 10, 1996 09:23 a.m. EDT) -- To advertisers and activists, the Internet is nirvana -- unlimited space and the chance to get their message to the world. To the public relations firm of Middleberg and Associates, it's a potential nightmare.

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 Bost on 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 Trademark Association.

"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 site.

"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," he said.

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 months.

Other public relations firms say they haven't heard of anyone using a similar strategy. Curtis Kundred of Fleishman Hillard International Communications deem ed 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 Relations Inc.

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 relations industry.

"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."