Sunday, September 29, 2013

A rat in the cellar

Last month, the Charlotte Observer reported that Gawker was unsuccessful in getting a libel suit dismissed.  The plaintiff in this case was an 18-year-old girl who'd recently graduated from Lake Norman High School.  Her senior yearbook had published a photo in which her upper thighs were visible beneath a graduation gown.  A parent who saw the photo freaked out, mistakenly thinking the student was flashing the camera.

A local station, WSOC-TV, picked up the story, followed by Gawker.  Gawker didn't help matters at all, calling the yearbook a "crotchbook" and using a screenshot from WSOC-TV which wrongly suggested the girl was lifting her gown.  WSOC-TV later retracted their story and issued an apology, however when Gawker was asked to do the same, they of course refused.

And so the girl sued.

The article in the Observer also included part of an e-mail sent to them last year by Gawker's attorney, Cameron Stracher, who was explaining why Gawker's actions weren't a big deal:
"...Gawker merely reported the controversy, never identified the girl, and the only ‘altered’ photo it posted was a smaller version of the original yearbook photo with a black bar obscuring the girl’s face and thighs that had already been published by (WSOC-TV)." 
The part that caught my attention is where Stracher said the student was never identified.  I wondered whether, hypothetically, showing the girl's face would've counted as "identifying" her.  I downloaded the PDF of the judge's order, and noticed this line in the "Analysis and Discussion" section:
"Defendant has responded with a general denial of all allegations in the complaint, and asserts...(3) the article never identifies Plaintiff by name, face, or circumstance, and thus cannot be “of and concerning” her, thus precluding an action for libel per se..."
It's true that Gawker never identified the student by her name.  And the writer, Neetzan Zimmerman, did not post a photo showing her face.  However, if you go read the story in question, and scroll down to the comments section, you'll notice something interesting.  The very first comment, made by Gawker user rraattbbooyyy, shows the girl's face plain as day.  The upstanding rraattbbooyyy writes:
"Because you know you were going to Google it anyway, here's a link to the NSFW-slash-optical illusion photo.  Doesn't look like bunched together thighs to me, but then it is a bit fuzzy."
(To clarify:  He wasn't really sharing a link.  Rather, the photo was embedded in his comment for everyone to see.)

The comment was posted back in May of 2012.  Erasing a comment isn't a lengthy process, and I presume John Cook or A.J. Daulerio could have zapped it within seconds had they chosen to.  Yet the photo remained up even after the girl filed her lawsuit last September in which she claimed emotional distress.  It remained even though the girl specifically said she'd been harassed and ridiculed by strangers because of the story.  So Gawker clearly has no issue with having the girl's face displayed on their site, as long as it was a commenter who posted the photo.  It's a weird little distinction.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Crackstarter follow-up

On July 18th, John Cook announced where Gawker would be donating the money raised from their "Crackstarter" campaign.  The sum of $184,782.61 will be evenly distributed among the following four charities: The Somali Canadian Association of Etobicoke, the South Riverdale Community Health Center, the Ontario Regional Addictions Partnership Committee, and Unison Health and Community Services.

So it seems all the major players in this controversy made out okay:  Gawker got a couple million pageviews for their anti-climactic coverage, some Toronto reporters had a fun little trivia night, and Rob Ford still gets to run the city of Toronto on a daily basis.  (I'm aware the video might surface eventually...But I would rather see The Star or a similar outlet recover it first, since they're actually invested in local politics.)

The only real loser here is Mohamed Siad.  He's the crack dealer who was attempting to sell Gawker the Rob Ford crack tape, and he was among the gang members arrested back on June 13th as part of the "Project Traveller" raids.  Things got worse for him, however, because two days after his arrest, Siad was the victim of a jailhouse shanking.  According to the Toronto Sun, some of Siad's fellow gang members blamed him for bringing heat down on their community.

I'm sure there's a lesson to be learned from all this.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Don't forget: You exist here forever

I used to think Gawker had a pretty handy commenting system.  Not only were the comments easy to browse, but the user profile pages themselves were set up in a very logical way.  When you clicked someone's profile, you would see, uncut, all of the person's previous comments.  Another tab had all the replies sent to that person.  And you could even send and receive private messages.  All those features have gone away now, but one "feature" that remains is that you can't ever delete your account.

JustDelete.me is a new site that gives information for how to erase your profile from hundreds of popular websites.  I learned about the site thanks to RYOT.org, which broke down the numbers and showed just how Gawker stands out in terms of inconvenience:
Out of the 241 web accounts databased in JustDelete.me’s directory, 146 are categorized as "easy" to delete, 18 are considered "medium" in difficulty, 36 are "hard" to delete and 41 are "impossible" (10 of which are Gawker sites). 
Other websites with impossible-to-delete accounts include GoDaddy, Pastebin, and, somewhat randomly, Starbucks.com.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Denton loses a bet

Back in February of 2011, Nick Denton made a friendly bet with digital consultant and socialite Rex Sorgatz.  The bet was to see whether Gawker's websites could reach 510 million global pageviews during the month of September.  The loser would subsequently pay the winner ten dollars for every million pageviews that Gawker was over/under that mark, and the handover had to be done in public. Gawker ended September slightly under that mark, and Denton paid up.  

Sorgatz used the occasion to renew the bet for another year:
Official terms: We will check Quantcast on October 1, 2012. The goal is 700MM pageviews/month. It’s $10 for every million over/under. (So $1000 to me if it’s 600MM.) Lockhart is the judge...And again, the money handover is to be done in public and photographed.

As the following September rolled along, it became clear Denton would lose the second bet by a much wider margin, and Sorgatz seemed to be licking his chops in anticipation.  But when October arrived, I didn't see any follow-up:  No announcement on Twitter.  No Tumblr post.  No public event with an inebriated Felix Salmon snapping photos.

I remembered the bet recently, and e-mailed Sorgatz to ask what happened. He sent a link to this photograph from his Instagram account which shows, indeed, Nicholas G. A. Denton lost the bet and made a bank transfer for $680.  I asked whether Denton had backed out of signing the check in public.  Sorgatz said that wasn't the case; he just didn't want to gloat upon winning.  And I believe him.

So let it be known that Rex Sorgatz is a magnanimous fellow who doesn't need to brag.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Ethics will vary

As mentioned Friday, there were other tech sites besides Gizmodo that Brian Hogan and his friend approached when they were trying to sell the stolen iPhone prototype.  When Wired was reporting on the story, they mentioned they'd "received an e-mail...offering access to the iPhone, but did not follow up on the exchange after the tipster made a thinly veiled request for money."

Another website Hogan and his friend approached was Engadget, and in fact Peter Rojas chimed in during the Reddit AMA to explain why they hadn't purchased the iPhone, either:  
"Engadget was offered the phone, but declined. Usually as a journalist you're allowed to use and publish confidential information if someone gives it to you (which is why Glenn Greenwald is in the clear), but if you do anything to induce someone to give you something (like paying them or offering them other form of compensation or consideration) you are potentially liable. 
In this instance the phone did appear to be stolen property, or at the very least that it was not the property of the person offering it, so it made sense not to buy it despite how newsworthy it was."
So if you're wondering why Gizmodo got the scoop in this instance, it's because Gizmodo doesn't mind paying for stolen goods, whereas other sites apparently have qualms about it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

iPhone leaker: "Gizmodo took advantage of me."

Unless you’re a person who gets his news exclusively from Will McAvoy, you probably remember back in 2010 when Gizmodo reported the details about a stolen iPhone 4 prototype.  It was found in a Redwood City bar by a man named Brian Hogan.  After trying to shop the device around to a few different tech blogs, Hogan sold it to Gizmodo for $5,000.    

Hogan was eventually charged with misappropriation of lost property.  He was sentenced to one year of probation and 40 hours of public service, and he had to pay $125 in restitution to Apple.  During a Reddit AMA this past June, he reflected on the whole ordeal and also had some unkind words for Gizmodo.  On whether he profited from the incident:
“Gizmodo told me they would give me $5,000 for the story, and another $3,000 after it was confirmed by Apple to be real.  They knew that there was no way in hell I was going to be able to ask for the $3,000 after the story aired, but I didn’t.  I ended up having to hire and expensive lawyer and had to pay him much more than $5,000.”
Hogan obviously took a gamble, and he lost, so of course he's going to sound bitter.  His words should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.  However I do find it interesting how Gawker treats their sources in the wake of a controversy.

On how his experience compared with that of Gizmodo:  
"Actually nothing happened to them.  Jason Chen got his door knocked down during a police raid, but no criminal or civil charges were filed.  My friend and I were the ones that took the heat.  From my perspective Gizmodo took advantage of me." 
It isn't unprecedented for Gawker to cover their source's legals bills.  It happened earlier this year in the case of Joe Muto, aka the "Fox Mole."   I asked Hogan whether or not Gizmodo made any such offer in his case.  He replied:
"No, when the shit hit the fan I asked them to 'step up to the plate for me' and they basically said F U and I never heard from them after that."