The angry get even on Internet gripe sites

by Genevieve Oger

Agence France-Presse
(Copyright 2000)

PARIS, Aug 17 (AFP) – When Andrew Marshall gets angry, he gets even. So when the BMW he leased in 1998 kept breaking down, he created a website to protest the poor service he was getting from the German luxury carmaker.”My intent was to embarrass BMW to get them to act,” he says. “BMW UK was so arrogant about this, they wouldn’t even take calls on the issue.”

Marshall’s revenge is part of a growing trend of protest or gripe sites createdby people who want to complain about faulty products, poor customer service or whatever else has angered them. It is difficult to say how many protest sites are out there, but experts estimate they number in the thousands.

Nearly every large corporation has been targeted by Internet griping, but the sites are not always about product complaints. Some are put up by disgruntled employees, others, such as — about Proctor and Gamble’s use of animals for product testing — try to publicise what they see as unethical corporate behaviour. The sites have multiplied exponentially as more people have gone online to tell the stories they would have otherwise shared only with their friends and family.

“People have always complained, but the fact you can tell the world your gripe is something new,” said Dale Hartley, the owner of a site called which links to hundreds of protest sites. “Before you had to picket in front of the company if you wanted to get heard, but picketing is a lot more trouble and reaches fewer people,” Hartley said. It is unusual for internet surfers to go out looking for protest sites, most end up there by chance as they hunt for information about a new car or any other potential purchase.

Marshall said he has publicised his site on every search engine, newsgroup and e-mail address he can get his hands on to make sure he can cost BMW as many sales as possible. “If I can stop one person from buying a new 5-series, then I have exacted my revenge on BMW,” he writes on his site.

Such “word of mouth” activism has gotten the attention of nervous corporations. “Companies are becoming increasingly aware that they need to know what is being said about them on the web and that they can’t be the last to know,” said Nancy Sells, vice-president of E-Watch, an Internet monitoring service.

Corporations have a host of different reactions, ranging from ignoring the protest sites to suing their critics for copyright infringements. But in most countries, such criticism is protected by freedom of speech statutes and unless the protest sites profit from use of a corporate trademark, they are usually free to complain as they please.

“Most companies would be best to ignore the criticism unless the sites feature pornography or are really hurtful to the company’s reputation,” said Thomas Burke, a California attorney who specialises in Internet law at the firm Davis, Wright, Tremaine. “Because if you don’t have a sense of humour and choose to react aggressively, it may backfire in terms of public relations,” he said.

Protest sites aren’t all bad news for corporations and can serve as useful bellwethers. “You can see it as terribly worrying, or you can see it as the cheapest form of market research in the world,” said Paul Edwards, chairman of the Henley Centre, a British consumer consultancy. “They mostly voice the concerns of a vocal minority, but they sometimes bring up legitimate concerns.”

In some cases, targeted companies have taken the criticism head on. Dunkin’ Donuts used a site criticising its service to identify disgruntled customers and pacify them with gift certificates and apologies. The company eventually bought the site outright. In other cases, the Internet has been used as a launch pad for successful class action suits. In 1996, Chrysler recalled 350,000 vehicles following an Internet protest launched by a US resident, Charlene Blake. She had highlighted brake problems in her minivan via a Usenet newsgroup. Once the complaint was out in the open, other car owners with the same problem came forward and the class action suit took off from there.

Protest sites are becoming such a powerful force that ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is considering creating a specific category for them. The organisation’s board voted in July to create new domain names to add to the .net, .com and various other web address suffixes. “Some people at ICANN facetiously suggested the ending should be .sucks,” Burke said. That’s unlikely to happen, but we should see a specific protest site designation on the Internet in the near future, he added.