A United States senator once said it, so it must be true: The Internet isn’t a dump truck, it’s a series of tubes. And many a reputation has gone swirling down those tubes, thanks to the Net’s ability to expose scoundrels, scalawags, liars, cheats, and fools — and then broadcast the scandal to a billion glowing screens.
The Net’s biggest scandals are nothing if not democratic, touching everyone from the most ordinary individuals to the highest office in the land. Not everyone deserved the notoriety. Some were hapless victims of privacy breaches; others were exposed by hackers or misguided crusaders. But in almost every case, somebody ended up getting fired, sued, or mortally embarrassed.
Here then, in descending order, are our picks for the 10 all-time biggest scandals on the Internet.
10. Don’t ask, don’t tell — and don’t tell AOL Senior Chief Petty Officer Timothy R. McVeigh figured there was no harm in listing his marital status as “gay” on his AOL profile. Even though he had not divulged his sexual preference to the military, McVeigh (no relation to the Oklahoma City bomber) chose not to disclose his full name or other identifying information to AOL. But his privacy — and his 17-year career in the Navy — were tossed overboard when an AOL employee divulged his full identity to a naval investigator in the fall of 1997.
When the Navy accused the 17-year veteran of violating the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and tried to discharge him, McVeigh sued. After a judge ruled in his favor, McVeigh was allowed to retire as a master chief petty officer, the rank he would have attained had AOL not spilled the beans in the first place.
9. The rootkit of all evil Halloween 2005 was a scary night for Sony BMG Music, but not for the usual reasons. That day Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich posted a curious entry on his blog. While scanning his hard drive that day, Russinovich had discovered a rootkit — a tool often used by hackers to mask the presence of malware — and had traced it back to Get Right With the Man, a Sony BMG Music CD.
The scandal snowballed, as other bloggers weighed in and the mainstream media picked up the story. At first Sony denied that its copy-protection software had turned half a million PCs into hacker’s toys. It then issued “fixes” that didn’t work, and finally it relented to public pressure and offered to help users uninstall the kit and replace their CDs. By then, the company’s reputation was as damaged as its customers’ hard drives.
8. Sex-video scandal #387 in a series Stop us if you’ve seen this one before. Sexy starlet falls madly in love with Hollywood hunk. Sexy starlet and Hollywood hunk fall madly out of love three months later. Soon thereafter a video of the pair making the beast with two backs appears on the Net, though both parties deny all knowledge of it. (What, weren’t they there?) It may be a jilted lover’s revenge or just a cheap publicity stunt, but it’s a little more exposure than any of us really needed. Memo to Pamela and Tommy Lee, Paris and Rick, Colin Farrell and Nicole, and all other would-be video exhibitionists: When you see somebody pointing a camera at you — and you’re not on a movie set — put your clothes back on. It’s generally not a good career move (though it’s still a step up from House of Wax).
7. ‘I sue dead people’This is one of those scandals that never seem to end. Beginning in September 2003, the RIAA and MPAA took a new tack in their anti-swapping crusade by suing consumers for illegally downloading music and movie files. They hired firms to infiltrate peer-to-peer networks, capture IP addresses, and force ISPs to reveal the names of the customers who had been assigned them (though some, like Verizon, refused).
Twelve-year-old honor students, dead grandmothers, computerless families, and thousands of John Does are among the 18,000 U.S. consumers sued so far. The upshot: File sharing is continuing, CD sales are dwindling, and legal downloads are climbing (even when they’re challenged by the RIAA). And the RIAA and MPAA are tied for second place as the Dilbert Awards’ Weaseliest Organizations of 2006.
6. The not-so-secret service In October 2004, Paris Hilton’s T-Mobile Sidekick account was hacked by 21-year old Nicholas Jacobsen, who shared her private photos and address book across the Net. No big deal; by that time thousands of Netizens had already seen as much of Paris as is possible to see without the aid of medical equipment (see scandal number 8).
The real scandal was who else got hacked in the same exploit: U.S. Secret Service agent Peter Cavicchia, who happened to be investigating Jacobsen at the time. Jacobsen produced memos that Cavicchia had e-mailed regarding ongoing investigations of Russian cybercrooks. In February 2006, Jacobsen pleaded guilty to one count of hacking, was fined $10,000, and was sentenced to a year of home detention. By then, Cavicchia had already turned in his badge. Though the Secret Service says he should not have been using his personal device for work, Cavicchia said he resigned on his own and was not asked to leave the agency.
5. Scandalous featsIn 1986, Paul “Freck” Morgan lost the use of his legs following a boating accident. Sometime in the summer of 2001, the paraplegic hit upon a brilliant idea: to cut off his useless feet with a homemade guillotine and broadcast the deed live on the Internet. Those interested in the gruesome spectacle could watch Freck’s Webcam for $20 (or $2 a toe); the money would go toward an operation for Morgan to be fitted for prosthethic limbs. Freck’s site even featured a charming cartoon depiction of what the event, scheduled for January 2002, might look like.
For a time Freck spurred debate among Netizens: Should someone be allowed to mutilate themselves solely for money and a sick kind of fame? But the cut-off date came and went, and Freck’s feet were still attached. Like OurFirstTime.com, where Webpreneur Ken Tipton boasted he would show two virgins deflowering each other on the Web, or Manbeef.com, which claimed to sell human flesh for consumption, CutOffMyFeet.com proved to be just another well-played hoax. In the end, Freck didn’t have a leg to stand on. Or maybe he just got cold feet.
4. The China sydrome Several Net giants found themselves on the wrong side of “the Great Firewall” last year as