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Ensnared in the Web

On April 30, 2003, my office phone rang.

By | February 14, 2005

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On April 30, 2003, my office phone rang. The caller, who wouldn't identify himself, wanted to discuss messages I had allegedly posted about the Eli Lilly Company on a Yahoo! Finance message board. Prior to the call, I knew nothing of the board's existence, but I soon learned that for more than a month, I was the subject of repeated attacks on the forum because I had been misidentified as an antagonist there who went by the screen name Mitosis03.

Users of the board thought I was Mitosis03, because in 1997 I had created a mitosis Web site as a cell biology course supplement.1 By 2002, the site was averaging more than 50 page views per day from students around the world, with each user spending an average of 2.5 minutes on the home page. When a board user searched the Web for "mitosis," they found my site and assumed that Mitosis03 was me. Mitosis03 had been posting messages on Yahoo!, bashing Eli Lilly or praising Ariad Pharmaceuticals, a small biotech suing Lilly in an intellectual property dispute.

Eventually, the attacks included threats of violence. Someone posted my name, my university address and position, my phone number and E-mail address, my salary, and even my spouse's name. These postings were all direct violations of Yahoo!'s terms of service. Unwanted phone calls to the lab forced us to change the number.

I thought about deleting the mitosis site from the university server. But as an educator, I found I was reaching hundreds of students with a Web site that provides accurate and useful information. I wasn't going to let a couple of know-nothing clowns force me to stop doing my job. My first inclination was to place a message on the board to clear my name. The campus information technology office convinced me that would only make a bad situation worse. With their help, I spent more than two months working to remove the abusive messages from the board.

I contacted Yahoo!, but found, unfortunately, that the staff absolves itself of responsibility for what is posted on their boards by not directly monitoring anything posted there. They deal with legitimate complaints by deleting all messages and accounts of the most egregious transgressors of their terms of service. One such bright light went by the name "Drop_the_shorts_please." Yahoo! cancelled his account and deleted everything he had ever posted on their message boards, although I am convinced that he returned a few days later with a new screen name. In my case, three lengthy cycles of complaint processing ultimately led to two accounts being deleted from the system.

I also sought help from my university's lawyers, who chose not to defend me from the attacks, instead urging me to hire a lawyer and to pursue the attackers in civil court. I found an alternative way to deal with the misidentification problem. In June 2003, I found a regular board user who had posted his E-mail address on the Yahoo! site. Unlike his peers, he signed his messages with his first name, Bob. I contacted Bob by E-mail, seeking his help. He posted a two-part message on the board from me, where I stated I was not Mitosis03.2

The response was striking. Some board users wrote that they never thought I could be Mitosis03. The doubters attacked Bob because he had helped me. Though my final cycle of complaints ultimately eliminated the abusive messages about Bob, we both learned that no good deed goes unpunished in the message board arena. No additional attacks have occurred since August 2003, though there were several instances when it appeared that new waves of trouble were coming.

What I've learned from this experience is that while the Web is a vibrant forum where access to unimaginably large numbers of students is possible, it's also a gritty place, where information can be used in unexpected ways, for unintended purposes. I was a target for abuse because my Web site created excessive exposure. Displaying authorship, with contact information, is a two-edged sword: On the one hand, it provides the Web site user with an implicit statement about the quality of information presented. That's important because a student unfamiliar with a topic can unknowingly rely on sites laden with inaccuracies. FAQs (frequently asked questions) don't go far enough; leaving an E-mail address for questions from users is necessary. But it can expose one to unwanted E-mail, spam, and viruses. Using a separate account for such E-mails will only mask the problem.

I'm left thinking that faculty should construct factual Web sites as extensions of their instructional duties, but that anyone setting up a site should assess the level of personal exposure that Web-site popularity entails. My mitosis site is quite important to me; it remains freely available, and I still answer questions posed by students who seek additional information. My experiences may have been an extreme example of attacks that resulted from the misuse of search information, but are a warning nonetheless.

Stephen M. Wolniak (sw36@umail.umd.edu) is a professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland.

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