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FreeAdvice.Com Blegs for Help Finding Abuser of Its Site:

Here's the press release, which struck me as interesting (not bad, just interesting):

FreeAdvice.com is asking the Internet community to help find an anonymous abuser of its website, who has posted thousands of harassing, threatening, and obscene messages on the FreeAdvice Forum. The unknown user, who frequently refers to himself or herself as "IAAL" or "I Am Always Liable," has abused the FreeAdvice Forum site several thousand times, posting obscene and harassing graphics and text messages, many of them personally directed against other users.

A hearing for a preliminary injunction in "Advice Company v. Unknown Abusive User" is scheduled for Monday, July 17, 2006, before Judge James Ritchie in Superior Court, Marin County, California. A Temporary Restraining Order was issued on June 30, prohibiting IAAL from using FreeAdvice.com and other websites maintained by its parent, Advice Company.

Gerry Goldsholle, Founder and CEO FreeAdvice.com, says the lawsuit aims to help keep the Internet safe. "The millions of visitors to FreeAdvice want an environment that is safe, where they and their family can be comfortable that they're not going to be abused or subject to sexually degrading and sadistic comments. We have zero tolerance for abuse, and there must be consequences for abusers who prey on the Internet community."

"IAAL" Attacks

After posting tens of thousands of generally useful messages since January, 2000, in late 2005 IAAL, who claimed to be a California attorney, inexplicably began a series of hostile attacks on forum visitors. He registered using over 100 screen names, including "Opera Ghost," "Inflagrante," and a variety of pornographic expressions. He routinely used sexually abusive language and threats, with offensive descriptions of female anatomy and vindictive remarks directed against other Forum users and staff members of FreeAdvice.com.

Damage to FreeAdvice Forum and the Internet

In its complaint, FreeAdvice.com claims that "IAAL" has cost the site and its related properties more than $100,000 in goodwill, lost productivity, advertising and visitor loyalty. But the damage is more than economic. IAAL's obscenity and threats hurt consumers seeking legal assistance.

Goldsholle says, "We repeatedly applied technological fixes, but IAAL figured out ways to hack in. When he started using foreign ISPs, we even cut off whole countries, making it impossible for overseas visitors to use the Forum. IAAL damaged access to legal information and the trust that makes the Internet such a valuable resource," he added.

Legal Action Against "IAAL"

Robert F. Knox, of Mill Valley, California, and Advocate Law Group P.C. of Irvine, California are representing FreeAdvice.com in this matter.... In addition to the injunctive relief that FreeAdvice.com has already obtained against IAAL, FreeAdvice is also seeking to recover its economic damages. The site's user agreement makes abusers liable for $250 per improper posting, which the site shares with charities....

Call to the Internet Community

If Internet users suspect they know the identity of IAAL, or if any ISPs or operators of other websites suspect IAAL has attacked their Internet properties, they are urged to contact Gerry Goldsholle at (415) 331-1212, ext. 234 or at abuse@adviceco.com. Copies of court filings are at www.freeadvice.com/iaal ...

jimbino (mail):

...harassing, threatening, and obscene messages... obscene and harassing graphics and text messages, many of them personally directed against other users.

The millions of visitors to FreeAdvice want an environment that is safe, where they and their family can be comfortable that they're not going to be abused or subject to sexually degrading and sadistic comments. We have zero tolerance for abuse...

... series of hostile attacks on forum visitors. He registered using over 100 screen names, including "Opera Ghost," "Inflagrante," and a variety of pornographic expressions. He routinely used sexually abusive language and threats, with offensive descriptions of female anatomy and vindictive remarks ...


I have to say I congratulate the Opera Ghost. Folks who use the Internet just have to grow up. Obscenity is illegal, as are child pornography and true harassment and threats.

Everything else is legal. Directing something against a person "personally" is laudatory, not actionable. I don't want an Internet that is safe or where someone's family can feel "comfortable." In fact, I want them to feel uncomfortable! Offensive descriptions of the female anatomy are legal, as are vindictive remarks and sadistic comments.

Maybe it's time to split the Internet in two parts: one for wimps and the other for folks who wish to participate in life.
7.19.2006 5:57pm
thewagon:
They would have been better served to spend their legal fees on a decent tech employee who could have kept the guy off their site. Good luck enforcing that judgment.
7.19.2006 6:07pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
"Folks who use the Internet just have to grow up."

I don't care what's on "the Internet". I doubt that IAAL does either. The issue is that this troll is abusing IAAL's property (bandwidth, servers or server time, etc.) and has refused to stop when so directed by the owner.

Since your argument seems largely philosophical, let me reply that I am philosophically opposed to this trespass and favor its termination. It is not materially different from spamming and other boorish behavior.

I will say that flaying alive and rolling in salt is probably a step too far for appropriate punishment.
7.19.2006 6:32pm
jimbino (mail):
Sundseth,

Are you upset about the abuse of bandwidth, servers, or server time? Or about the content?

If the issue is abuse of the former, I fail to see the purpose of all the talk about sex, pornography, etc, unless the idea is to turn the internet into a Baptist church.
7.19.2006 9:19pm
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
I don't see anything wrong in people having views on what they'll permit on their little slice of the Internet. The Conspiracy does, too, and without them the value of it to everybody goes waaaaaaaay down. Similarly, even if someone were convinced that there's a time and place for talking about sex and pornography its pretty clear that its not every time and every place. And folks who feel otherwise are free to set up their own "participate in life" servers and services elsewhere.
7.19.2006 11:06pm
Just:
"I don't see anything wrong in people having views on what they'll permit on their little slice of the Internet."

I don't either, but if we're going to value this as a "free speech" forum offering contradictory views, some folks need to stop deleting and censoring and allow contradictory views in. Otherwise, it's a private party -- nothing wrong with that -- with swellheads reaffirming each other. Not much value there in the long run...
7.20.2006 8:18am
Ken Arromdee:
if we're going to value this as a "free speech" forum offering contradictory views, some folks need to stop deleting and censoring and allow contradictory views in.

Abusiveness isn't a "view" in that sense. You can allow contradictory views without allowing abusiveness.
7.20.2006 10:51am
Passing By:
They would have been better served to spend their legal fees on a decent tech employee who could have kept the guy off their site.

How? The "best" solutions bog down the server by checking a poster's IP against known lists of open or anonymous proxies, while excluding legitimate traffic which is routed through those proxies. It sounds like freeadvice tried that, with the net result being unsurprising - legitimate traffic was blocked, and the unwanted person still found a way to get through.

A Google search for IAAL shows that he's on more than one legal forum. He is abrasive but more or less behaves on the other I found. I wonder what happened on the freeadvice forum to set him off.

From a legal perspective I am curious as to whether freeadvice could subpoena IAAL's lawyer's billing records to find out who is paying the legal fees. Weren't prosecutors doing that a few years back to find out who was paying the legal fees for certain defendants?

I am also curious as to whether anybody believes that freeadvice's $250 liquidated damages clause for any rule-breaking forum post has even a slight chance of being upheld.
7.20.2006 12:55pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I think this issue is more complicated (legally) than both sides make it out to be. IAAL truly is causing a great deal of harm, abuse and disruption. It isn't just that he is expressing opinions other people don't like but he is actively preventing other people from peacefully exchanging their own opinions. There should be some kind of remedy for this extreme behavior the same way their is a remedy for someone who follows you around in public with a bullhorn disrupting your conversation every time you try and have a conversation about sports or the law.

Nor is it as simple as saying that IAAL is wasting freeadvices bandwidth, discouraging users from visiting or otherwise causing monetary harm through his comments and should thus be legally in the wrong. If this was sufficent then posting in yahoo's message boards that google groups has a better interface and people really should try it would be enough to constitute a crime. After all your message is encouraging people to use another site and 'wasting' bandwidth making posts yahoo doesn't want. If you want a less extreme example what about someone posting a civil argument saying abortion is murder on a pro-life blog and thereby offending the participants or (like the cartoon controversy) making comments on some board that offend the religious beliefs of the participants.

One might be tempted to say that only posts violating the sites terms of service are unlawful or the basis for a suit. However, this has it's own problems. I think we all agree that pirate bulletin boards whose terms of service (TOS) deny permission to enter to employees of the firms whose produces they pirate shouldn't be able to use the law to keep out people who might report them to the cops. Indeed a recent case just ruled that merely saying members of group X are denied access is insufficent to make their access illegal.

A somewhat more plausible attempt is to say that the access is illegal only if it is both not authorized and required circumventing technical countermeasures designed to prevent that access. While there are still some problems this seems to work well to combat genuine hacking but it doesn't seem to solve the problem in the IAAL case. Yes freeadvice tried to block IAAL from using the site presumably by contacting his ISPs, blocking IPs he used and similar measures but I presume they made no attempt to privlege posting on the board in general. Is this, in combination with the TOS, sufficent to make IAAL's actions illegal or trigger liability? If so we are back in the previous situation where groups talking about how to pirate comcast cable can simply block all known IPs associated with comcast employees and now these comcast employees are in a similar legal situation as IAAL. Even the difference between passive observation and active posting won't save one as a site could easily (and some do for other reasons) only allow people who have shown their worth by making a suitable number of postings to have the privleged access.

Setting damages is another huge problem. Clearly, as with other contracts, one can't allow the TOS to arbitrarily set the damages far higher than actual injury. Yet it seems nearly impossible to assess injury in a way which seperates the harm from the violation and the harm from the content of the message. For instance if I make a post on a yahoo group critisizing yahoo using obscence (not legally but against TOS) language how the hell do you tell what part of the damages were caused by my opinion that yahoo sucks and what part was caused by my foul language?

Going down the road of allowing sites TOS and attempted eviction procedures to create damages seems very troubling. I simply don't believe there is any way to create a good standard here that wouldn't have seriously negative repercussions on free speech or give website owners inappropriate power.

As my examples above illustrate the real problem here is not that IAAL accessed the site in violation of their TOS, that he posted messages harming the site or offending people, nor even that he circumvented technical measures designed to keep him out. Rather the problem simply is that he is harrassing the users of this bulletin board. This should be dealt with in the same manner stalking or general (non-sexual) harrasment are handled, with restraining orders and judicial declarations making specific actions illegal. In short freeadvice shouldn't be able to get damages for actions before the restraining order but restraining orders should be easier to get in these situations.

Or course the technical challenge of tracking these people down through anonymous proxies is a whole different matter. IAAL probably didn't start using one of these though so he may be easier to find. However, I think there is a good chance someone else took over/hijacked the account of someone who stopped visiting the site.
7.21.2006 5:24am
w3 (mail):
Jimbo,

I see a flaw in your argument that Internet consumers just need to grow up. I would say it is the mature mind who recognizes and respects private property rights and TOS Agreements and that it is the graffiti artist, IAAL, who needs to grow up.

The server isn't owned by IAAL. The software wasn't installed by IAAL. The forums are not maintained by IAAL. IAAL doesn't pay for the bandwidth to serve out his remarks. The content of the abuse is not nearly as important as the abuse itself. If IAAL were posting prose that was not generally offensive but off-topic in a manner that was similarly harassing or in violation of the site's TOS, wouldn't you say that the company who owns all these things mentioned above and who pays for the bandwidth to serve it up would have a justifiable grievance?

It's not about the nature of the material, it's about the abuse of another person's property. FreeAdvice.Com is protecting its brand and product.

The purpose of all the talk about obscenity is to explain the trigger for FreeAdvice.Com. They seem to think that if someone comes to their site seeking free legal advice, they may not return if the response they get is a description of the neighborhood's familiarity with their mother's genitals.

Even if he was a 'vette fan posting disparaging posts about mullets on a Camaro forum, if the forum owners don't want it, why should they be obligated to put up with it, let alone pay for it under their brand name and URL?
7.21.2006 10:09am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
w3,

They aren't obligated to put up his posts. I'm sure they have been deleting them for years. The relevant question is whether they get to punish IAAL for trying to post on the site.
7.21.2006 4:03pm