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Internet Astroturfer Fined $300,000 245

Posted by Soulskill
from the bet-amazon's-traffic-spikes-today dept.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday that Lifestyle Lift, a cosmetic surgery company who posted fake reviews of their services on various websites, will have to pay $300,000 to the state of New York. Cuomo's office says this is the first US case to specifically target astroturfing on the internet. "Internal emails discovered by Attorney General Cuomo's investigation show that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in this illegal activity. One e-mail to employees said: 'Friday is going to be a slow day — I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client.' Another internal email directed a Lifestyle Lift employee to 'Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had.' In addition to posting on various Internet message board services, Lifestyle Lift also registered and created stand-alone Web sites, such as MyFaceliftStory.com, designed to appear as if they were created by independent and satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift. The sites offered positive narratives about the Lifestyle Lift experience. Some of these sites purported to offer forums for users to add their own comments about Lifestyle Lift. In reality, however, Lifestyle Lift either provided all the 'user comments' themselves, or closely monitored and edited third-party comments to skew the discussion in favor of Lifestyle Lift."
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Internet Astroturfer Fined $300,000

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  • by bossanovalithium (1396323) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:28AM (#28703303)
    We all know this shit goes on, all the time, but to email about it? they deserve more than 300k fine.. Will it stop this from happening? I doubt it.
  • by morgan_greywolf (835522) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:33AM (#28703369) Homepage Journal

    What I really want to know is this: does this "anti-astroturfing" law apply to "Team Windows"? If so, watch out Softies, Cuomo's got your number....

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Hyppy (74366)
      I'd rather have Microsoft shills than the horde of Cowards. Team Microsoft usually at least contributes something to the discussion, even if it's misinformed at times, as opposed to AC wharrgarbl.
    • by drsmithy (35869)

      What I really want to know is this: does this "anti-astroturfing" law apply to "Team Windows"?

      Certainly. However, the law requires more evidence than "does not hate Microsoft, therefore is an astroturfer".

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Sj0 (472011)

        I was going to say something along those lines.

        I mean, I'm pretty positive about Windows 7, but it doesn't mean I work for Microsoft.

        Astroturfing is destroying discourse on the Internet. You can never know for certain if you're arguing with someone with convictions or just some paid marketing drone. Where once you'd have to come up with a good argument, people can now just point and say "You're just being paid to express that opinion, since nobody sane would ever have it!"

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by drsmithy (35869)

          Astroturfing is destroying discourse on the Internet.

          Rubbish. Paranoia about "astroturfing" is stressing certain individuals who in some way define themselves by their feelings about whatever-it-is that isn't being "astroturfed".

          You can never know for certain if you're arguing with someone with convictions or just some paid marketing drone.

          Why do you care ? What difference does it make ?

          Where once you'd have to come up with a good argument, people can now just point and say "You're just being paid

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Sj0 (472011)

            There's a distinct difference between a zealot and an astroturfer -- Most important among them is that one of them believes what they're saying, and the other is just pretending to believe what they're saying.

            It's the fundamental difference in whether the conversation is honest or not that poisons internet discourse. Companies are shooting themselves in the foot by associating positive opinions of their product with dishonest under-the-radar paid advertisements.

  • So? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cdrudge (68377) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:34AM (#28703387) Homepage

    Marketing department tells lies about their product. News at 11.

    • ...what kind of Marketing Cuomo's office did to get this story on Slashdot. Political Slashvertisements now? Or was Soulskill just passing some time surfing the website of the NY Attorney General's Office when he came upon this gem?

    • Re:So? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by glop (181086) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:46AM (#28703509)

      Did you read the summary?
      They lied and got fined.
      That sounds like news to me.
      I had always known that people were planting fake reviews on forums and thought the only defense be cautious. So hearing that this is actually illegal is big news in my opinion.

    • Re:So? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:46AM (#28703515)

      Marketing department tells lies about their product. News at 11.

      Indeed. I think that prosecuting this company for astro-turfing is pointless and inconsistent. As long as we have such a laissez-faire attitude towards all the lies and misdirection that marketing people have been doing for decades now, going after a handful of astro-turfers does nothing but give people a false-sense of trust in what they read on the net. Never mind the free speech implications that come into play when defining exactly where the line is between valid promotion and astro-turfing. (does giving away a free "review" produce with a promise of future "review" products qualify as illegal, what if the promise is never spelled out? what if its not a give-away, just an open-ended loan, or what if it is 1 year loan and it just so happens that the next review product shows up in exactly one year too?)

    • Re:So? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by timeOday (582209) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:46AM (#28703517)
      Your recap leaves out the news and then claims it is not news. The news is not that they lied, but that they were caught and prosecuted. Good.
  • legal (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fulldecent (598482) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:43AM (#28703475) Homepage

    >> New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday that Lifestyle Lift, a cosmetic surgery company who posted fake reviews of their services on various websites, will have to pay $300,000 to the state of New York. Cuomo's office says this is the first US case to specifically target astroturfing on the internet.

    How is this illegal?

    • Re:legal (Score:5, Informative)

      by TheRealMindChild (743925) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:53AM (#28703575) Homepage Journal
      False Advertisement.

      You and I can say anything about any product we want... that's our opinion. But if the company making a product makes claims that are untrue about said product it's False Advertisement. These people just try to hide it by pretending to not be affiliated with the company. That may even be in itself Fraud.
      • But if the company making a product makes claims that are untrue about said product it's False Advertisement.

        So all those "male enhancement" commercials on TV are real, and portray real customers with satisfactory experiences?

        This stuff is sleazy, but I don't see how it's inherently worse than other advertising we already tolerate.

        • Re:legal (Score:4, Insightful)

          by plague3106 (71849) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:35AM (#28703977)

          The difference is that you KNOW YOU'RE WATCHING AN AD, paid for by the company. There are also usually disclaimers on the ad, if you look saying "actor portryal, actors potraying real customers, real customers compensated, real customer not compensated."

        • Re:legal (Score:4, Insightful)

          by TheRealMindChild (743925) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:37AM (#28703991) Homepage Journal
          No, they aren't real and a majority of the public wouldn't mistake it for real either. Aside from that, things like "Male Enhancement" are ambiguous products with ambiguous claims. About the only thing solid you can pull away from the advertisement is "These characters claim to have a better sexual experience", but what does that mean? A better orgasm? What does THAT even mean? How do you even measure it? Even if the product did nothing on the physiological level, a placebo effect can certainly cause results on the psychological level.
        • by rpillala (583965)

          It's been a while since I watched a commercial, but don't they put a notice at the bottom saying that the people are actors or something? Kind of like "professional driver on closed course"?

          Contrast this with ads that say they're going to present real testimonials from actual customers. If they say that, then they have to do it.

        • by Rolgar (556636)

          Well, there is a difference.

          When you see it in an advertisement, you know to take it with a grain of salt. That is, you know that the seller may not have credibility because they have a financial incentive to say what they say.

          A review is word of mouth, an independent person who has used the product and is giving you their opinion of how well the product worked. In the pre-Internet days, you could talk to somebody you know or happen to meet who has experience with product X (say the iPhone). You expect t

        • This stuff is sleazy, but I don't see how it's inherently worse than other advertising we already tolerate.

          "our product is the best in the market" - subjective, sleazy, legal.
          "our product contains substance x" (which is actually not there) - objective, still sleazy, illegal - false advertising.
          "this guy's product is great" when you're actually "this guy" but pretending not to be - astroturfing, subjective, I'm guessing illegal - fraud.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by 2obvious4u (871996)
      • How is this illegal?

      It is Fraud.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by copponex (13876)

      A market without transparency is not a market. Consumers need accurate information to make informed decisions. The goal of major corporations is to deceive people as much as is legally possible for the greatest short-term profit possible. If the company in question gained more profit than they had to pay with fines, it's a win-win for them.

      So, in a healthy market, astroturfing is illegal. I doubt this will effect any company behavior, since the fine was so low. They will just come up with some legal loophol

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by rpillala (583965)

      It sounds like wire fraud [wikipedia.org] to me. Even though wikipedia is no place to get legal advice, the definition of wire fraud is included in the article. I followed their link [cornell.edu] to the appropriate US Code section:

      Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

      The emphasis is mine, and I think that's where this activity on the part of Lifestyle Lifts employees is illegal.

  • Microsoft shills (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jkxx (739331)
    Now hopefully someone will look into the MS shills frequenting this and other technology sites.
    • by ciderVisor (1318765) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:53AM (#28703561)

      Leave us alone !

    • by wjousts (1529427)
      Hopefully they will look into tin-foil hat shills too!
    • by plague3106 (71849) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:38AM (#28704009)

      The problem is that you assume anyone here that actually LIKES MS' product (like me) is automatically a shill. I'm not a shill, I'm a person that was exteremly disapointed when I jumped to Linux, and thus jumped back. My Linux experience actually turned around my opinion of MS software. It was very much a case of "the grass is greener on the other side," only to find that not only wasn't it any more green, there were quite a few brown patches.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @11:02AM (#28704311)

        McDonalds sells hamburgers. Not the greatest hamburgers, but they are very convenient. People who have no real choice often end up at McDonalds. Although there is nothing really wrong with McDonalds, there isn't a whole lot right about it either. You might try Burger King and discover that you like McDonald's better. That much I can believe, but most people who want a better choice than McDonalds will go to a real restaurant.

        So I can understand why you might legitimately dislike Linux. But most of the people who jump ship from MS in search of a better experience end up with Apple. A few of them might even go back to MS, but I have yet to see that happen in real life.

        You may be a genuine McDonalds fan. There really ARE some people who have acquired a test for their food, even though the majority view it as a last resort. But in the computer industry, a lot of people get paid to express an opinion. Brand loyalty is a commodity to be bought and sold. So the pro-MS comments get a fair amount of skepticism, as would a glowing review of McDonald's cuisine.

        • by drsmithy (35869)

          That much I can believe, but most people who want a better choice than McDonalds will go to a real restaurant.

          In the OS world there is no "restaurant". They all suck, just in different ways.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Super_Z (756391)

        Whether people are astroturfing or simply have a bias or positive opinion is of course extremely hard to tell. What is striking is the sheer amount of people that has a positive bias towards Microsoft that has entered this forum these last years.

        What is even more striking is the dearth of people extolling products competing with Microsoft.

        Given the amount of "I use Linux, but Bing is really good" posts - where are the Yahoo fanboys posting their views? Likewise - where are the happy Flex/Flash users when lo

    • She shills C-sharp shells by the sea shore.

      Or something like that.

    • Re:Microsoft shills (Score:4, Interesting)

      by socrplayr813 (1372733) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:46AM (#28704111)

      Yes, because no sane person could ever disagree with you.

      While there are probably MS shills out there (just like every other major company), the fact that you specifically target them in a story not at all about Microsoft suggests that you're just anti-Microsoft, which really isn't much different from being a shill.

    • More to the point, it sure clears up that controversy surrounding wikipedia paid edits, which some wikipedia editors tried to push a while ago.
    • by kalirion (728907) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:58AM (#28704263)

      All right, fess up, how much did Linus pay you to post that comment?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mcgrew (92797)

      Not to mention Sony shills, who seem to always have mod points at slashdot. I was an XCP victim, but any time I say anything negative about Sony I'm modded down.

      I wonder if that's illegal as well? Probably not.

      At any rate, there are also lots of shills here from other companies besides Sony and Microsoft, although it seems the Sony and Microsoft shills seem to get lots of mod points (lots of employees, so it makes sense). In their defense (my God, I can't believe I'm defending MS and Sony) if someone blaste

  • Not the first! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mathinker (909784) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:44AM (#28703491) Journal

    Sony got caught doing this a while back:

            http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4741259.stm [bbc.co.uk]

    The link is to the BBC coverage of the California court decision.
    I found out about it after reading a Slashdot post panning one of the movies which was pushed this way.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      And to throw in another, Belkin were also caught paying people to do reviews on some tech websites fairly recently, the whole "pay for good review" thing.

      So many links on it, it is just better to link the search.
      Belkin Paying for good reviews [google.co.uk]

      And funny thing about these is that so many companies do it, even small-time shops, anything to get customers.
      And if you were to ask most of them if they knew the legality of it, they'd never think once that it was illegal.

  • In other words... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Idaho (12907) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:50AM (#28703547)

    As a company, you should be absolutely fine, unless you are so incredibly stupid as to put instructions like these down in writing, and making them so explicit that they cannot be read or weaseled out of in any conceivable way.

  • by panthroman (1415081) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @09:52AM (#28703555) Homepage

    The company gets a punitive fine, okay. But who gets the money?

    A Michigan-based company lies on the internet, so giving the money to the State of New York doesn't make sense to me. I'm having a tough time specifying just which group was wronged by the company -- Michigan consumers, American consumers, all consumers who have access to the internet, suckers? Wouldn't the money be more appropriately given to the FTC?

    • by trogdor8667 (817114) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:05AM (#28703687) Homepage

      According to TFA...

      Lifestyle Lift is like a franchise. They have offices in a bunch of places, including 21 in New York, and they also advertised specifically in New York, hence harm was done in the state of New York. I'd think that the Michigan AG could now also perform the same type of fine, and probably other states that the company has offices in too.

    • As a corporation, if you have facilities in a certain state, you are expected to abide by the laws of that state. New York gets the money because the AG filed the suit and did all the work. I suppose the FTC could join in the fun if they wanted to... but it looks like there is no need here.

      SirWired

    • by mcgrew (92797)

      I'm assuming you're British. I wish we had an ASA here, but unfortunately there's nothing an US customer can do about false advertising. The company's competetion has to file the complaint here, the customer has no recourse unless it's out and out fraud. And even then, if you file a complaint with the BBB you can't file a complaint with the AG (at least here in Illinois).

      But then, we have the best legislators money can buy. And corporations have LOTS of money.

  • by MobyDisk (75490) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:02AM (#28703649) Homepage

    The problem is not the fine. The problem is that the individuals who did this can hide under the corporation and not be held responsible. Why is it that if I did this on my own, I would personally be liable, but if I did so working for a corporation, the corporation is liable? Can I just do anything I want, so long as I have a shell corporation with a boss who tells me to do it?

    If we held individuals responsible, then individuals would stand-up to the corporations and say no. But so long as they can clear their conscience by blaming their boss, and on up the chain, these things will happen. Oh, and punishing the CEOs doesn't fix it either, unless the CEO was really involved. Everybody seems to want to go to the person at the top. I want to beat the person at the bottom who actually did it.

    • by u38cg (607297)
      The point is, if you or I did this, it wouldn't *be* a problem. It would be fairly daft, but as far as I know there's nothing to stop you posting a fake review anywhere per se. So there's by extension nothing that the people have done wrng as individuals. This does not mean that a corporation can order its employees to gun down the opposition (though it would make hostile takeovers much more interesting).
    • by kevinNCSU (1531307) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:17AM (#28703809)

      If we held individuals responsible, then individuals would stand-up to the corporations and say no. But so long as they can clear their conscience by blaming their boss, and on up the chain, these things will happen.

      If you work at such a morally righteous company then good for you. However, many corporations would have a field day with the ability to ask employees to do illicit activities without any threat of it falling back on the company itself. If you "stood up" to the company as you suggest you'd likely find negative consequences to your employment/advancement.

      The individuals stood little to nothing to gain. It's the corporate entity that is involved in the illegal actions. Could you make a dummy corporation with a boss and do the same thing to "protect" yourself? Sure thing, but the $300,000 fine is going to come to your boss and dummy corporation (ie: you) so what would be the point?

      I think it's also important to make the distinction that their violating laws pertaining to the legal operation a corporation and therefore the corporation is fined. Had they been told to go murder someone, then clearly the individuals would be held responsible as well, not just the corporate entity.

      • by Thaelon (250687)

        Why?

        If they fined the individuals responsible for the decisions, then they might actually stop doing shit this reprehensible.

        A corporation doesn't really exist. It's comprised of individual decision makers who should be held accountable for their decisions just as non-corporate citizens.

        And I mean both, those in charge and those responsible for the actual actions. If you put the repercussions on both then shit like this would occur a lot less frequently, don't you think?

        I'm sick and tired in this day and

    • The people who were giving the orders will no doubt be held responsible in some way by the corporation. True, it'll likely be more because they got caught than because of what they did, but you can be sure they'll hear about it. Unless it was coming from the highest levels of the company, in which case the fine is already correctly targeting them.

    • by RobBebop (947356)

      You're correct.... as long as there are there are no negative circumstances (or even a perception of negative circumstances) to doing immoral or unethical acts people will do them.

      We fight pretty hard when there are things we don't think should be considered immoral or unethical (such as jail time for smoking marijuana), but I think what's lacking is a fight to make the negative circumstances of truly immoral and unethical acts more visible.

    • by mcgrew (92797)

      I wouldn't punish the poor sap who posted the shillage if he was ordered to, I'd fine whoever gave the order. Punishing the low level worker wouldn't fix anything. He's between a rock and a hard place - get fired for not following orders, or get fined for following them.

      If it's corporate policy to break the law, the CEO and board should be held accountable, and not just to the stockbrokers but to the government.

  • Now they can go after the entire online porn industry? I have a feeling that it's all a bunch of sites owned by one person laughing demonically and getting you to click on links that never ever get you anywhe...

    Hmmm, no, I've never done that. I don't know about those sites! Really!

  • by tinkertim (918832) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:41AM (#28704043) Homepage

    Hi! Billy Mays here with a completely new and revolutionary product called Internet Astroturfing! Read what thousands of our satisfied clients have to say about IA on popular blogs and forums ....

  • by furby076 (1461805) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @10:45AM (#28704107) Homepage
    Haven't companies learned by now that if you are going to instruct your people to do shady/illegal stuff that you should NOT put it in a memo. Just go by word of mouth "hey bob, make some fake posts"....dumb asses

    BTW I find politicians a bit hypocritical. In politics the tech writers will write a nice constituant letter about their politician. They will then give it to a loyal constituant and ask them to sign it. So the constituant never wrote the words, never had the experience, but because they like the politician they will put their name to it...and this makes it 100% perfectly legal. So the next time you see grandma who says her politician is the second coming of christ just realize the words/experience may have come from some paid writer and grandma just signed her name to it.
  • I don't understand why a company which is not based in New York lied on the Internet, and was fined by the "State of New York". They have one location in Syracuse, NY, but they have locations all over the United States. Could every state in the United States fine them for $300,000?

    And, of course, we can't forget Andrew Cuomo's lengthy track record when it comes to tech issues, specifically Usenet.

  • These slimeballs just got picked off because they got big enough to get noticed, and they had enough money to make it worthwhile for the government. This will not be likely to give much pause to the small companies and individuals who routinely employ these sleazy tactics [markbernstein.org].
  • Lifestyle Lift, a cosmetic surgery company [...] Lifestyle Lift [...] Lifestyle Lift [...] Lifestyle Lift [...] Lifestyle Lift. [...] Lifestyle Lift [...] Lifestyle Lift. [...] Lifestyle Lift [...] Lifestyle Lift."

    Just in case you didn't catch it the first time!

  • Web Hosting is one area where they are going to have a field day with. I recently left a horrible webhost (double-billing, not staffing cancellation lines, technical support staff on shotty VOIP lines that hardly speak English) and know they only survive because of fake reviews and of the like.
  • What independent and satisfied customers of any (one time use) product or service go out of their way to create a fan page? Sure, they exist for Toys, Games, Food, but Plastic Surgery? A site like that is fake on its face (pun intended, but no less accurate).
  • Might this spell the end of the Israeli lobby?

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "That's funny ..." -- Isaac Asimov

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