By way of James Grimmelmann comes this yarn of how far one company will go to keep people from leaving negative reviews for its products online. Matt Haughey, the founder of MetaFilter (think: Reddit for people with graduate degrees) has had an odd back and forth with the people at Sundance Vacations:
In January of 2013, I was contacted by Sundance Vacations over this 2010 question at Ask MetaFilter. The company appears to be a time-share vacation company and it seemed they were trying to chase down every negative mention of their company online.
The question at Ask MetaFilter doesn’t necessarily tarnish their company, as someone asks if a vacation sales pitch they have to attend to win a free trip is worth the trouble. Most of the answers mention general stories of having to sit through strong-arm timeshare sales pitches and how to get out of them quickly.
tl;dr: this company wants to lawyer up on bad internet press.
Now, most companies have figured out that 47 USC §230, better known as the Communications Decency Act, makes it pretty damned hard to go after sites like MetaFilter for the things their users say. From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
The Bloggers’ FAQ on Section 230 Protections discusses a powerful federal law that gives you, as a web host, protection against legal claims arising from hosting information written by third parties.
Occasionally, some companies will go after the individual reviewers. (Or, if you believe the rumor mill, some sites monetize their §230 immunity.) Sundance Vacations is apparently one of those companies. But they need a little help to find users sometimes. They enlisted Matt to help locate his user, and then it got … dumb.
It Gets Dumb
The 2013 email from Sundance Vacations to Matt asked him to remove the MetaFilter thread. They apparently said that the person who posted the thread was the subject of a court order preventing him or her from speaking negatively about Sundance Vacations.
Sundance Vacations provided a user name and a real name, which didn’t match. Matt pointed this out and Sundance Vacations walked away.
Last weekend, he got a second one. The 2014 email tried the same ploy. ‘Here is a court order barring someone from talking about us online. That person X has this username Y on MetaFilter. Please delete the thread posted by Y.’
Here’s what Matt does:
Again, I did some digging and the names didn’t match up at all, and I notified the company. This time, instead of thanking me and dropping it, they demanded all identifying info about the user that did make the post so they could contact the court about obtaining a new court order against that user.
This reminds me of Kramer’s automated Movie Fone bit.
“This user is barred by court order fr-“
That’s not him.
“Oh. Well, then this other user is barred b-“
That’s also not him.
“Why don’t you just tell me the name of the user we want to censor?”
So now Sundance Vacations has apparently tried the same move twice and been shut down twice. But there’s a fun twist.
Seriously, you have to read Matt’s post on Medium about how he uncovers the absurd truth; this latest court order is a forgery. Sundance Vacations apparently didn’t bother to actually go to court. It just copied and pasted its name onto a court order in someone else’s lawsuit.
Okay But Like Wait
Here’s the top of the “order.”
You see that string of letters and numbers on the right-hand side? “25CH1:13-cv-000259” isn’t just there for kicks. It’s the case identification number, and you can look it up right here. The -000259 case? Yeah, it’s not a Sundance Vacation lawsuit. Sundance Vacations apparently has never been party to a case in this court. (Though that might just change soon.)
So, like, wait. Are there… any lawyers at Sundance Vacations? Do they know that people can look cases up online? The right to access public judicial records in this country is severely limited – and getting worse – but Sundance Vacation picked one court where you can expose the forgeries in literally minutes.
That’s a Felony
Matt’s not an attorney, and his Medium post links to some hornbook definition of forgery. Which is all well and good. But this here is Barely Legally, and we do things (barely) by the book. I run a “respectable” law “blog.”
Finding a link to the Mississippi Code is a little tricky because Mississippi seems to have contracted with Lexis to publish the Code online. Lexis has a garbage web site where you have to click through a 4500-word EULA to access the Code.
Sidebar: this Code is in the public domain. While certain creative works created on behalf of the State of Mississippi are copyrighted, the law is not. So even if Lexis’s terms and conditions didn’t feature the license-voiding “we can change the terms and conditions at any time without any notice to you” condition (it does, and that’s a no-no), they can’t really give you a license to something that’s in the public domain.
Justia has boldly pirated the Code for us; Title 97 of the Mississippi Code, Chapter 21, Section 35 is titled Pleadings, process and other court papers, licenses, or written instruments generally – it just rolls off the tongue – and it’s nice and broad when it comes to faking court papers. §33 of that same chapter makes it a felony to forge court papers. You can spend ten years in prison for that!
All this for a web site where people were talking about their experiences with your company. It might have been easier to engage in a conversation with your customers.