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US: Info-Cleansing on the Web

Now, Companies Can Track Down Their Cyber-Critics

by Marcia StepanekBusiness Week Online
July 7th, 2000

A new service allows corporate spinmeisters to retaliate against outspoken citizens with "reeducation" efforts -- or worse

Beware the public relations person with a modem. Now corporate spinmeisters, too, can go online to track customers -- especially the disgruntled ones who vent their spleen in cyberspace.

That's right. All those companies you love to hate now have a way to find out who's griping about them, and they can target complainers for a little reeducation. Thanks to a new product from Dallas-based eWatch -- and sold through Edelman Interactive public relations agency and PR Newswire -- companies can now monitor what people do or say on the Web and respond.

The result: So-called "anticorporate activism," as it's known in the flak trade, will never be the same -- and neither will your sense of free speech as a consumer.

INFO-CLEANSING. How does it work? Partly, eWatch says, through a little info-cleansing. "We can neutralize the information appearing online, identifying the perpetrators behind uncomplimentary postings and rogue Web sites," the company's online promo material says. Then, eWatch can "remove offending messages from where they appear in cyberspace."

This may mean something as simple as deleting a posting from a Web message board on Yahoo! or it could mean "the shuttering of a terrorist Web site." The objective? "To stop the spread of incorrect information and to ensure that what has already spread is eliminated," eWatch states.

Tracking so-called "perpetrators" is also part of the service, says eWatch National Product Manager Ted Skinner. That's done by "using a variety of methods, such as following leads found in postings and Web sites, working with ISPs, involving law enforcement, conducting virtual stings and other tactics," he says.

"We can post back to the message boards where original postings appeared to give our side of the story, provide clarification, or debunk it," the eWatch materials go on to say. "We can e-mail directly those we think were affected by the incident." And, says eWatch, "in the name of identifying entities whose motives are fraudulent, deceptive, or criminal, eWatch Cybersleuth will attempt to identify the entity or entities behind the screen names targeting your organization."

CHATROOM PERPS. Such snoop tools don't come cheap. eWatch says it can identify a person or group behind a screen name that has targeted a particular company or organization within 7 to 10 days for a price of up to $4,995 per screen name. For an extra $1,995 per screen name, eWatch says it can give a company results within 48 hours. Either way, Skinner says, companies that use eWatch "will receive a dossier detailing all information gathered about the subject during the inquiry."

The trouble with all this is that the so-called perpetrators being targeted are often people like you and me exercising our right to free speech. Think about it. Say you get lousy service from Barnes & Noble and you criticize it in your favorite chatroom. Barnes & Noble, an eWatch customer, could -- if it wanted to -- monitor that complaint, identify who you are, and get B&N's public relations crew to send you an e-mail trying to change your mind.

But say you're so angry you write in a posting that you feel like strangling the clerk at B&N's store at Union Square in Manhattan because she made you wait so long to ring up your purchase. Chances are, the company would ignore you. But eWatch Cybersleuth wouldn't. It could track you down -- and forward your name to B&N executives for further attention. Or if you're spreading phony tips about B&N stock in an online financial forum, B&N could "work with" an Internet service provider to erase your comments from the site.

"TOO CLOSE." Still not convinced this is for real? eWatch's Skinner says Northwest Airlines used his service earlier this year to help it track down the identities of employees who organized a "sick-out" that nearly halted flights over the last Christmas holiday. The company has since fired those employees, and a court has upheld the legality of that action. The ruling is under appeal. Northwest is now using eWatch to help it target -- for reeducation -- the most teed-off of its fed-up fliers.

To be sure, the Net can make it rough out there for companies not used to the consumer scrutiny it enables. According to Skinner, many companies like the way the Net can bring them closer to consumers for marketing purposes. But when it comes to dissatisfied consumers, the Net sometimes "can bring them too close," he says.

Consider all the Web sites created by consumers, for consumers, simply to vent -- such as the Aetnasucks.com, ATTsucks.com, and Searssucks.com, to name a few. Griping is hardly confined to those sites, Skinner says, and criticism of companies often shows up in chatrooms or general discussion groups. "Say one customer tells their bad experience to 20 other people, and then imagine 50 million people reading about it on the Internet," eWatch's marketing materials warn.

OMINOUS IDEA. Adds Skinner: "From a public-relations standpoint, it becomes much harder to safeguard shareholder value, improve customer service, protect corporate reputation and brand integrity" when a customer goes online to complain. "The Net is vast and fast," he says. Besides, Skinner adds, if companies can use the Net to personalize customer service, why not use it to do one-to-one public relations?

To me, there's something very troubling about cyberspinning. Good public-relations personnel can quell panic and remind people of their company's side of the story in the heat of a crisis. But personalized spin campaigns? The potential for abuse seems too high, and the idea sounds ominous to those who cherish free speech without risk of punishment.

Even at its most benign, the idea is unsettling. It used to be you could share your opinion about a company with someone online without worrying that the company would ever find out about it. Now, you run the risk of getting hassled with corporate e-mail, not to mention being personally targeted for a cyber reeducation campaign, or worse.

CRISIS COMING. How much will a private citizen say online, knowing that? What will happen to online communities that form around a common experience with, say, a lemon of a car or a harmful product? Maybe containment is the whole point, but it's hard to believe that healthy and robust e-commerce, not to mention the right of free speech, can be well-served with privacy-busting products like these.

If they land in overaggressive hands, snoop tools and services like eWatch sound like a PR crisis just waiting to happen.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Marcia Stepanek is BW's Technology Strategies editor. She closely follows online privacy issues.





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