Web Informant #141, 8 February 1999:
Dealing with rogue web sites


There is a growing crisis of confidence with today's web-based information. One of the hardest things about using the web is to know when something is really coming from its intended source, and whether what you read is the truth. This is particularly a problem when you go shopping on the web, but it is also an issue when you are trying to do some research.

This isn't unique to the web, of course. Last fall's journalism missteps with Mike Barnacle, Steve Glass, the CNN Agent Orange story and others made it hard to believe our more traditional print and television news sources too. And there are many examples of faked email, something very easy to do. The news out of the Microsoft trial last week pointedly shows how Judge Jackson lost confidence in some videotaped demonstrations. We were treated to the spectacle of several Microsoft staffers heading to CompUSA to buy a new supply of laptops, to recreate their demo and show exactly what happens when you try to remove Internet Explorer from the rest of the Windows operating system.

But because the web contains images and text, we probably place more trust than we should on what we see there. And, as recent events have shown, it is getting tougher to discriminate what is real, and what is rogue, web information.

Sometimes people put up parody sites just for fun, and they are clearly parody. No one who has read more than one issue of PC Week would confuse www.pcweak.com with the real Ziff publication that I used to write for. And the same goes with the many Microsoft parody sites (a great list of them, by the way, can be found at Yamoo.)

But there is parody, and then there is slander and libel and misinformation. Disgruntled employees post rogue pages, or someone who has been done dirty by a company decides to get even. The stock and etrading sites are filled with people trying to depress or inflate stock prices for similar reasons. Corporations post phony job openings to throw off competitors and headhunters. It is a nasty world out there, and the web is no longer this naive playground for a bunch of computer scientists.

Perhaps the classiest rogue site is the one created by WR Grace, the conglomerate featured in the book and movie "A Civil Action." Grace decided to set the record straight with respect to the many errors in the movie (and there were many errors made, although not all in the interest of portraying Grace as a bad corporate polluter) with its own site. Quick, can you tell which is which between the following two URLs:



One is the "real" site, created by the movie's distributor. The other is the Grace site, which contains lots of links to the original reporting and science done for the legal case during the 80s. The site also puts forth the not-too-subtle point of view that Grace isn't such a bad guy and look at all the millions of bucks they have spent over the years to clean up their toxic waste dumps, yadda, yadda.

I guess what bothers me most about the Grace rogue site is not that they went through the considerable expense to produce it and collect their information, but that the domain name is so close to that of the movie and book. If this had been some high tech company instead of a movie/book title, you know there would be a lawsuit over the use of the name by now. Indeed, a few years back Microsoft went after one rogue web operator who obtained the domain name micros0ft.com (that is a number zero instead of the letter "o"), and the site is gone.

There is nothing wrong with posting your point of view on the web, unless you are trying to threaten someone's life or deliberately spread false information. And given that the web changes from moment to moment, how can any reasonable person attempt to try to track things down? The page of misinformation that you browse today might be gone by tomorrow, after it has served its purpose.

How can you be sure that what you see is really genuine? The short answer is you can't. But there are a number of techniques to help improve the authenticity of information that I'll share with you.

One way to check is to go to the Internic and see if the site you are on is registered by the company you expected. Go there and type in the domain name of the site in question to see who at least paid the bill for the domain name. Another way is to go to Dejanews and search the Internet news groups for a poster's name or email address, if you think the rogue site operator is active in these areas. You should also carefully examine any contact information on the site and make sure it matches what you already know about a company.

There is lots of other good advice about tracking down rogue sites in an article than Dan Janal wrote for Scambusters.

In the meantime, it pays to be skeptical about what you view on the web.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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