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Comunidades, English, Gestión e innovación

Community depredation and the dregs of Internet

Hello again. It’s been a busy time.

Not just with the holiday presents (as you know, Spanish holidays extend to Jan 6th with the feast of the Three Wise Men). We’ve had a happily-resolved, but nevertheless very revolting clash with the worst type of Internet denizen. We’re still digesting the event but there are a couple of things that I believe can be useful for anybody with an interest in safely running online communities.

Everyone knows, at least in the abstract sense, that out there lurk ethically deformed people. Some are sick, some are depraved. The net has given us all a means of contact that makes it even harder to screen them out than face to face. We build some barriers, we avoid some practices. Sadly, “we” is not everyone.

Specifically, there is a very large online community out there where eminently normal people play to their baser callings: exchanging stolen pornography and tips on whorehouses is the fare of the place, addled with some cooler leisure topics that attract a large audience. While doing this, they slum with the kind of people that live in that atmosphere, not just dip in it. For them, hinting at child pornography or rape is not just a game. If it were a bar, it would be downright seedy, and a bit dangerous. But it’s the net, isn’t it, so it’s not real – and so, over one hundred thousand members crowd those forums and many more crawl them.

That forum is the brainchild (to give it a decent name) of a professional freak that poses as a depraved in any media that asks for it. He has apparently been involved with the Justice for sex with underage boys, all rejected after the emergence of tapes in which the minors recorded their consent. Whether that was a ploy for notoriety or an underhand settlement, our lawyers don’t know.

Some months ago, there was a conversation on one community-management list about whether the existence of that kind of online environments was good, bad or irrelevant for paedophiliacs and potential predators. Well, now I’ve seen an example, and I know what happens: they egg each other on, and apparently normal people cheer from the sidelines.

The story

At the start of this year we (the Macuarium team) detected a thread in that forum in which a person who knew our own forums well was trying to stir up a “forum assault”. He lifted pictures of members from our site, including two of minors, wrote extensive abuse about us and very obscene phrases about the minors, and harangued his forum-mates to do to us what they seem to have done several times in the past: shut down the forum by using a deluge of extremely foul trolling and revolting pictures. And when I say “revolting”, I mean gruesome images of real burned, shot or squashed people, rape images and child pornography. I have not seen more than one of the examples we found, and I’ll probably remember it for a long long time; and no, I won’t be linking to their footprints here. They are indeed enough to cause havoc, regardless of many other considerations.

They do that until they have laughed enough at the victim’s defense attempts and cries for mercy. Also, they apparently have done it before with the full collaboration of the forum administration, in secrecy. They have a methodology for it, indeed…

Before having a clear picture of who was behind that place, we started documenting the thread. We tried to contact their administrators and site owners to call for the removal of the thread. We also contacted their ISP and DNS providers. To no avail. We could see the attack preparations gather pace (by that time we were actively monitoring several things) as the scheduled time of attack approached (23.00 in our time zone).

We didn’t raise public alarms as that would most likely only cause confusion and the kind of notoriety evidently enjoyed by the attacker, but we got ready to stop, mop and counter the attack. Sadly most of the details can’t be made public yet, but our team really made me proud.

We went to the police too, of course. But we also had to take down the doctored child pictures, which we did by asking the image hosting service. They complied, and the pervert asnwered by uploading new and extremely gross doctorings of the picture on a different server, one without privacy policy, user registration or visible means of contact.

When we managed to pull that version down too, the denizens of the other forum were quite certain they were being watched, even as they plotted, recruited and started to register themselves in our forums for the attack. Finally, they probed the defenses a bit and gave up, already well into the night.

Next day, an administrator closed the remains of the attack thread (we’d already hunted down all unauthorised sources of images) without removing the abuse. Finally, late yesterday the thread was pulled off.

It’s not finished. We don’t trust them, and we aren’t done with them either.

Surf discreetly and carry a big stick

And we’ve taken a harder eye to pictures and activities of minors on our forum. We always monitor these, and we have always been very fast to block actions that should not be done without parental support. We’re proud to be much more family-friendly than the average TV programme, and a safe environment for online children, but there’s things that would make anybody paranoid.

There’s despicable people out there that allow anything in order to thrive: some ISPs, some site owners. There’s stupid people out there that can’t tell the difference between some slumming and actually hurting themselves or other people. And there’s evil people out there, some sick enough to think that kind of behaviour is somehow “cool”.

There’s also sensible and efficient people who try to protect their community members, adults and children, even in the middle of the night of their Christmas holidays. If you don’t have a team of them around in your online community, you better get some.

I knew about some of the dregs of the internet. I’ve fought off two “forum invasions” previously. But this week’s events (and especially our own investigations of the new foe) made me see much more clearly just how neccesary it is to stand watchful and have a very good team to rely on, and how thin is the line between normality and seeing your child’s picture doctored into pornography and posted visibly on the net.

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