Monday, February 4, 2013

Cyberbullying, and an Old Internet War

The term 'cyberbullying' is defined as using the Internet "to harm other people, in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner." As the internet has gained mainstream popularity, many organizations have risen to educate people on cyberbullying, and to discourage people from it.

This makes sense. By 2013, we've seen a number of instances where online social behavior has led to the harm of others. The 2006 suicide of Megan Meier is an often cited example. General character defamation can cause victims to lose money. This also makes sense, given that a lot of online revenue relies on page clicks, which relies on the desire of consumers to indulge in the website owner's content.

I started making a habit out of browsing the internet in my teenage years, and the term cyberbullying still sticks out to me as fairly new. In fact, I didn't really start reading about organized anti-cyberbullying movements until a couple years ago. In the years before that, I've read about some online movements as they've come and gone. I think that, by modern standards, some of these online movements would be classified as cyberbullying, but it makes me wonder if cyberbullying needs to be better defined.

This post aims to re-examine one of those old online movements. This one happened when I was around 15,  and I'll try to recapture how the (far, far nerdier) 15-year-old version of me was interpreting these events. Hopefully I can make a completely mundane story about kids on the internet seem far more entertaining than it actually is.

In January of 2006, a couple of online communities - YTMND, Newgrounds, etc - did something funny: They declared "war" on the website Ebaumsworld.


If you were a middle schooler and high schooler in the early 00's, then the Internet was a magical source of funny stuff that you and your annoying friends could browse together. Newgrounds was a website where people submitted their funny animations and Flash videos. YTMND was a website where people could mash together a funny image and some music on loop. Several other websites hosted similar content, keeping a countless number of insufferable adolescents distracted from more well-adjusted people.

Ebaumsworld was a popular humor website that hosted pictures and videos from throughout the web. The website was one of the earlier attempts at monetizing online content, having a solid ad revenue infrastructure that gave the website considerable worth.

The problem? The online content on their website was often taken from other websites without permission. Not only would there be no attribution to the original content creator, but the content would also be given an Ebaumsworld watermark. This implies that the website was claiming ownership of content that did not belong to them. This further implies that the website's owner, Eric Bauman, and his staff were making money over content that did not belong to them.

This problem of copyright infringement is something we've talked about before, with YouTube. The difference is that Ebaumsworld was popular at a time when the internet was not regulated very well. Although Eric Bauman did face accusations of copyright infringement from multiple parties, larger companies like Viacom never came forward with legal action. Individual artists did not hold much say in what happened to their work, and their intentions were often disrespected by the website. The Baumans would claim that they had acquired written consent from the original content creators in order to host their content. However, those same content creators would often come forward and say that they were never approached with such a request.

Bear in mind that these operations were taking place through the early half of the '00s, when the internet was still a newfangled invention that seemed to undermine profit instead of offer it. There was yet to be any serious method to the madness that is online legal matters.

By early 2006, these frustrations with Ebaumsworld's business operation were well-known among internet circles. In January of that year, the website lifted an animated image from a YTMND user, and posted it without the original creator's permission. YTMND's members, angry at the theft from their favored website, retaliated.

YTMND members migrated en masse to the Ebaumsworld forums in order to spam and post harassing massages - referred to at the time as "board invasion". More importantly, they used what is known as a denial-of-service (DoS) attack. This is when individual members would repeatedly load the ebaumsworld website or repeatedly download content from the website, either personally or with a program. Doing so causes the consumption of website bandwidth, and can crash the website servers. The YTMND attackers called on the help of other online communities to join in on the attack. Other websites' members eagerly joined in.

Their efforts caused the ebaumsworld website to crash for a brief period of time, cutting off any views or ad revenue that the site could have potentially received in that time span. At one point, someone on YTMND hacked the website, re-directing ebaumsworld forum users to YTMND.com. When the ebaumsworld staff fixed this hack, it was followed with a public statement that anybody who used ebaumsworld's forums to promote YTMND would be banned. Some of the more ambitious YTMND members purportedly visited the ebaumsworld headquarters, though I'm honestly unclear on whether that one actually happened.

The administrator and owner of the website YTMND, Max Goldberg, publicly discouraged the behavior of his website's members. The Baumans sent Goldberg two cease-and-desist letters (which you can read in that link while being given a dramatic reading). Bauman accused him and his website's "pimply-faced teenager" members of cyberterrorism (while possibly spouting some antisemitism in the middle of the second letter). Goldberg responded firmly, writing about his awareness of the unruly situation that his members wrought, and his efforts to stop them. He ended his lengthy response with this paragraph:
I tried to be amiable. I tried to offer you my help in ending the entire thing and you did nothing but insult me, when I think it's obvious I have had nothing to do with this. I'm done with you. I will continue deleting things that break my terms of service, but beyond that, expect nothing. Here is my final offer: tomorrow at midnight I will delete anything with the term "eBaum". I offer to do this for you if you remove lohanfacial.html [the stolen animation] from your website.
Ultimately, Ebaumsworld took down the stolen animation from their website, and Goldberg removed all user-generated content on YTMND that had to do with Ebaumsworld or the online attack. The "war" was over.

Looking back, YTMND's response over Ebaumsworld's actions were fairly juvenile. This whole incident was triggered because a disliked website hosted an image online. The stolen animation wasn't especially clever either, considering that it's gone the way of obscurity now. It's entirely plausible that the only people to participate in such an attack - or even take enjoyment out of spectating it - were the pimply-faced teenagers that Bauman alludes to in his letters.

The significant aspect of the YTMND event was that, ultimately, the pimply-faced teenagers succeeded. That which was stolen, was removed. It was the first time that a group had called out Ebaumsworld's shady practices, and won. What's more, the online attackers rallied behind a perceived notion of justice. To these kids, Ebaumsworld had a reputation of theft that was being overlooked by any real authority, and these attacks were a loud and overdue grievance.

More importantly, it was a large-scale online organized invasion that preceded more notorious online movements, both good and bad. The event defined clear sides for participants; there was an assumed identity by being on the side of YTMND, or on the side of Ebaumsworld. This was a precursor to the more news-worthy actions of Anonymous, and to the public demonstrations of socially-minded reddit users.

Perhaps what's most interesting about the YTMND invasion was that it probably could not happen on today's internet. Between then and now, our society has developed new ways to regulate, prevent, and combat attacks like this. People have adapted very well to the internet, and to the new paradigms of social interaction that it brings.

I wonder if YTMND's actions would be classified as cyberbullying today. Going by the described events, YTMND users were certainly attempting to take down the Baumans' source of revenue through hostile online means. However, the Baumans attracted their site visits - and their ad revenue - from content that was acquired through questionable means, sometimes outright stolen means. Nobody was doing anything about their actions, either. While the YTMND community was in fact out to harm the website, it seems incorrect to simply call them the bullies and move on.

At the same time, the way that the YTMNDers expressed their outrage caused some collateral damage. The Baumans and their staff may have been their intended targets, but spamming and harassing the Ebaumsworld forums meant that YTMNDers were affecting lots of everyday users who just happened to be on the Ebaumsworld forums. Though, any given user on these websites just had to endure the inconvenience of their website being offline for a few hours, so it's difficult to express concern for them.

So, who knows? It doesn't matter. This is a story that people don't talk about anymore for good reason. It was a brief moment in time where a bunch of middle schoolers and high schoolers got to stroke their egos over something that didn't even directly effect them. We live in an age where online attacks are targeted against credit card companies, and are coupled with prosecution. It's hard to make a slight scuffle between two comedy websites seem important.

Still, if there really is a push for greater cyberbullying awareness, maybe it's worth looking back at the unimportant stories. There might be something to learn from them. Or, at least, they're something that can entertain us.

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