Can big guys rule the Web?

Summary:The 'democratization of information' online means that the little guy has just as much of a chance online as the big one.

Can big corporations co-opt and control the Internet? So far, it isn't looking good for the big guys.

For all the bold talk from titans such as General Motors Corp. and General Electric Co. about embracing -- and bear-hugging -- the Internet, and for all the dreams in Hollywood of manipulating movie-fan Web sites to transform low-budget flicks into boffo box office, the reality of the Internet is chaos -- sometimes damaging chaos.

Big companies are used to a world in which, if they are writing the check, they can control the behavior of outside allies: Ad agencies, parts manufacturers, and trade associations all deliver pretty much what the boss orders, and they don't overstep their assignments.

The Internet doesn't work that way. The rallying cry of Internet visionaries is "democratization of information" -- information about products, pricing, quality and customer satisfaction, all of it easily available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. No longer do you have to be an insider -- a consultant, or a journalist or a company executive -- to get the inside dope.

Suddenly a bully
Join the Discussion: What is the best way for companies to manage important and sensitive information about them on the Web without looking like bullies?

In this world, the old power brokers often become objects of scorn, or even malice. And it can happen so fast that the companies don't see it coming.

A case in point is the legal fracas between Ford Motor Co. and Web-site publisher Robert Lane. Over the past year and a half, Ford officials let Mr. Lane, a fan of Ford's Mustang sports car, get close to the people who are designing the next generation of Mustang. Ford issued him a media pass, and he began publishing his insights on his Web site.

Monday, in a lawsuit accusing Mr. Lane of posting internal secret documents on his site, Ford goes into court to seek a preliminary injunction to stop him. Several documents on Mr. Lane's site -- since removed -- appeared to offer details of key aspects of Ford's product strategy. Mr. Lane is racing from one media interview to another, presenting his case as a David-and-Goliath contest over the First Amendment. He says that he did nothing illegal to obtain the information and that the Constitution protects his right to publish it.

Ford argues that the case isn't about First Amendment freedoms at all. "It's about Ford's efforts to protect its property, including copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and internal documents," the company says in a statement. Ford says it sued Mr. Lane after he "posted a confidential document and trade secrets on the Internet where our competitors can read them -- and threatened to post many more." In addition, Ford says that by bragging about sneaking into a closed-door meeting and by offering to sell Ford blueprints, Mr. Lane's actions were "plainly illegal and unethical. That's what this is really all about."

As companies like Ford increasingly probe consumers' heads, they are discovering the risks of having that intense scrutiny turned back on them when disgruntled employees and consumers and upstart pundits take to the Web.

A hole in the doughnut
Dunkin' Donuts Inc. recently decided its best choice was to buy out a Web site that had been posting consumer complaints about the company's fare. David Felton, now a 25-year-old computer coordinator for a school district in Hamden, Conn., launched the site a couple of years ago out of anger that the Dunkin' Donuts shop he stopped at on the way to work didn't have skim milk to go with his coffee. The company later threatened to sue him because of the site's use of words copyrighted by Dunkin' Donuts, Mr. Felton says, but when he didn't back down, it agreed to his offer to sell the site, dunkindonuts.org (www.dunkindonuts.org), to the company.

"I proved my point. I illustrated that the Internet is a very powerful tool to channel consumer opinion," says Mr. Felton, who still technically owns the site because the company managing its Internet domain name hasn't yet transferred the name to Dunkin' Donuts. Adds Mr. Felton: "However big of a company you think you are, you're not untouchable."

Dunkin' Donuts, a Randolph, Mass., unit of Allied Domecq PLC of London, confirms in a statement that it has agreed to buy Mr. Felton's site so the company can "more effectively capture the comments and inquiries that are being submitted by our customers." A company spokeswoman declines to comment further. Neither the company nor Mr. Felton would disclose the terms of the deal. Can big corporations co-opt and control the Internet? So far, it isn't looking good for the big guys.

For all the bold talk from titans such as General Motors Corp. and General Electric Co. about embracing -- and bear-hugging -- the Internet, and for all the dreams in Hollywood of manipulating movie-fan Web sites to transform low-budget flicks into boffo box office, the reality of the Internet is chaos -- sometimes damaging chaos.

Big companies are used to a world in which, if they are writing the check, they can control the behavior of outside allies: Ad agencies, parts manufacturers, and trade associations all deliver pretty much what the boss orders, and they don't overstep their assignments.

The Internet doesn't work that way. The rallying cry of Internet visionaries is "democratization of information" -- information about products, pricing, quality and customer satisfaction, all of it easily available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. No longer do you have to be an insider -- a consultant, or a journalist or a company executive -- to get the inside dope.

Suddenly a bully
Join the Discussion: What is the best way for companies to manage important and sensitive information about them on the Web without looking like bullies?

In this world, the old power brokers often become objects of scorn, or even malice. And it can happen so fast that the companies don't see it coming.

A case in point is the legal fracas between Ford Motor Co. and Web-site publisher Robert Lane. Over the past year and a half, Ford officials let Mr. Lane, a fan of Ford's Mustang sports car, get close to the people who are designing the next generation of Mustang. Ford issued him a media pass, and he began publishing his insights on his Web site.

Monday, in a lawsuit accusing Mr. Lane of posting internal secret documents on his site, Ford goes into court to seek a preliminary injunction to stop him. Several documents on Mr. Lane's site -- since removed -- appeared to offer details of key aspects of Ford's product strategy. Mr. Lane is racing from one media interview to another, presenting his case as a David-and-Goliath contest over the First Amendment. He says that he did nothing illegal to obtain the information and that the Constitution protects his right to publish it.

Ford argues that the case isn't about First Amendment freedoms at all. "It's about Ford's efforts to protect its property, including copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and internal documents," the company says in a statement. Ford says it sued Mr. Lane after he "posted a confidential document and trade secrets on the Internet where our competitors can read them -- and threatened to post many more." In addition, Ford says that by bragging about sneaking into a closed-door meeting and by offering to sell Ford blueprints, Mr. Lane's actions were "plainly illegal and unethical. That's what this is really all about."

As companies like Ford increasingly probe consumers' heads, they are discovering the risks of having that intense scrutiny turned back on them when disgruntled employees and consumers and upstart pundits take to the Web.

A hole in the doughnut
Dunkin' Donuts Inc. recently decided its best choice was to buy out a Web site that had been posting consumer complaints about the company's fare. David Felton, now a 25-year-old computer coordinator for a school district in Hamden, Conn., launched the site a couple of years ago out of anger that the Dunkin' Donuts shop he stopped at on the way to work didn't have skim milk to go with his coffee. The company later threatened to sue him because of the site's use of words copyrighted by Dunkin' Donuts, Mr. Felton says, but when he didn't back down, it agreed to his offer to sell the site, dunkindonuts.org (www.dunkindonuts.org), to the company.

"I proved my point. I illustrated that the Internet is a very powerful tool to channel consumer opinion," says Mr. Felton, who still technically owns the site because the company managing its Internet domain name hasn't yet transferred the name to Dunkin' Donuts. Adds Mr. Felton: "However big of a company you think you are, you're not untouchable."

Dunkin' Donuts, a Randolph, Mass., unit of Allied Domecq PLC of London, confirms in a statement that it has agreed to buy Mr. Felton's site so the company can "more effectively capture the comments and inquiries that are being submitted by our customers." A company spokeswoman declines to comment further. Neither the company nor Mr. Felton would disclose the terms of the deal.

In May, defense contractor Raytheon Co. dropped a lawsuit it had filed against 21 employees and others that it alleged had posted internal company information on Yahoo! investor message boards. Raytheon claimed in its suit that the board contained sensitive and confidential information such as bid proposals, unreleased financial data and pending company divestitures. The suit, filed in Massachusetts Superior Court in Cambridge, identified the 21 by their Internet pseudonyms. Through subpoenas to Yahoo! Inc., Raytheon sought and received the identities of its workers.

Four employees, including a company vice president who used the pseudonym "RSC Deepthroat," left the company. The rest were counseled on the importance of keeping company secrets. Raytheon, stung by the negative publicity it received for what many described as an attack on the First Amendment, considers the issue closed and doesn't like to talk about it. "A lot of discussion arose out of our situation, but from a Raytheon perspective, we're moving on," spokesman David Polk says.

Walking the line
Some companies have learned to walk the line between cooperating with and controlling Web fans or foes. Faced with numerous fan sites for "Phantom Menace" before the film came out, Lucasfilm Ltd. deftly manipulated those sites to build interest for the "Star Wars" prologue.

And the success of the film "The Blair Witch Project" was driven in part by enthusiasm fired up on Web sites, including one put up by the movie's producers.

From fan to gadfly
But just as Web talk can boost sales of movies or cars, it also can turn critical. The tale of how Mr. Lane evolved from a fan into gadfly serves as a parable for any company that thinks it can control the Internet and the customers who use it.

The environment at Ford was ripe for something or someone like Mr. Lane. Jacques Nasser, the company's new president and CEO, wants the company to focus more on consumers. In addition, the company was enamored of the idea of using fans of Mustangs and Thunderbirds to help create the next generation of those icons. All that meant getting closer to consumers. The Internet seemed a perfect medium for the job.

Mr. Lane, now 32 years old, says he never set out to anger Ford. Indeed, he has been consumed with admiration for the world's No. 2 auto maker ever since he learned about its founder, Henry Ford, as a seventh-grade student in Orlando, Fla. "He's my idol. What an American patriot," says Mr. Lane, who has read extensively about the founding Ford's desire to bring affordable transportation to Americans with his famous Model T. "He was for the little man, like I am."

The first car that Mr. Lane bought -- when he was a high-school junior -- was a black 1969 Mustang Mach 1. Throughout his teenage years, Mr. Lane restored old Fords. Then, as a student at an Orlando community college from 1992 to 1996, he entered the publishing world. He wrote eight guides to restoring old Fords, concentrating on the intricacies of obtaining the right parts.

In 1997, Mr. Lane's wife, Sharon, a flight attendant who is now 27, was transferred to the Detroit area. There was no question in Mr. Lane's mind where in the area the couple would settle. "I wanted to live in an area that was Ford," says Mr. Lane. So the couple rented a house in Dearborn, a few blocks from Ford's glass-walled headquarters building.

In May, defense contractor Raytheon Co. dropped a lawsuit it had filed against 21 employees and others that it alleged had posted internal company information on Yahoo! investor message boards. Raytheon claimed in its suit that the board contained sensitive and confidential information such as bid proposals, unreleased financial data and pending company divestitures. The suit, filed in Massachusetts Superior Court in Cambridge, identified the 21 by their Internet pseudonyms. Through subpoenas to Yahoo! Inc., Raytheon sought and received the identities of its workers.

Four employees, including a company vice president who used the pseudonym "RSC Deepthroat," left the company. The rest were counseled on the importance of keeping company secrets. Raytheon, stung by the negative publicity it received for what many described as an attack on the First Amendment, considers the issue closed and doesn't like to talk about it. "A lot of discussion arose out of our situation, but from a Raytheon perspective, we're moving on," spokesman David Polk says.

Walking the line
Some companies have learned to walk the line between cooperating with and controlling Web fans or foes. Faced with numerous fan sites for "Phantom Menace" before the film came out, Lucasfilm Ltd. deftly manipulated those sites to build interest for the "Star Wars" prologue.

And the success of the film "The Blair Witch Project" was driven in part by enthusiasm fired up on Web sites, including one put up by the movie's producers.

From fan to gadfly
But just as Web talk can boost sales of movies or cars, it also can turn critical. The tale of how Mr. Lane evolved from a fan into gadfly serves as a parable for any company that thinks it can control the Internet and the customers who use it.

The environment at Ford was ripe for something or someone like Mr. Lane. Jacques Nasser, the company's new president and CEO, wants the company to focus more on consumers. In addition, the company was enamored of the idea of using fans of Mustangs and Thunderbirds to help create the next generation of those icons. All that meant getting closer to consumers. The Internet seemed a perfect medium for the job.

Mr. Lane, now 32 years old, says he never set out to anger Ford. Indeed, he has been consumed with admiration for the world's No. 2 auto maker ever since he learned about its founder, Henry Ford, as a seventh-grade student in Orlando, Fla. "He's my idol. What an American patriot," says Mr. Lane, who has read extensively about the founding Ford's desire to bring affordable transportation to Americans with his famous Model T. "He was for the little man, like I am."

The first car that Mr. Lane bought -- when he was a high-school junior -- was a black 1969 Mustang Mach 1. Throughout his teenage years, Mr. Lane restored old Fords. Then, as a student at an Orlando community college from 1992 to 1996, he entered the publishing world. He wrote eight guides to restoring old Fords, concentrating on the intricacies of obtaining the right parts.

In 1997, Mr. Lane's wife, Sharon, a flight attendant who is now 27, was transferred to the Detroit area. There was no question in Mr. Lane's mind where in the area the couple would settle. "I wanted to live in an area that was Ford," says Mr. Lane. So the couple rented a house in Dearborn, a few blocks from Ford's glass-walled headquarters building.

That same year, Mr. Lane bought a new Apple Macintosh computer. It came with directions on how to launch a Web site. In March 1998, Mr. Lane launched his first site, fordbookstore.com, which he intended as an outlet for his restoration books. He also says he received permission from Ford to sell through his site reprints of books that had been used by Ford dealers listing the specifications of Ford models prior to 1973.

At about the same time, Mr. Lane launched a second Ford-related Web site, fordworldnews.com. He applied to Ford for a media pass to attend the company's press events so he could write about them on his site. Mr. Lane says Ford gave him the pass within a day.

Companies have long used consumer focus groups to gain insight into their needs and wants. Increasingly, those groups have moved from hotel conference rooms to cyberspace. At the same time, car makers, like other consumer businesses, are trying to foster relationships and a sense of community among customers. Ford has set up a Web site called TruckTough.com (www.trucktough.com) to create a virtual community of truck customers who will help the company create future products in the important truck segment. The site nowhere indicates that it is operated by Ford.

In this environment, Ford continued to play ball with Mr. Lane and his Web site. With his company-issued press pass, he was invited to events where he came in contact with Ford employees. At a Mustang event he was invited to by a member of a local Mustang club, Mr. Lane says, he and his wife walked into a meeting of Ford's Mustang team without being questioned. He posted the agenda from that meeting on his site.

When he suggested that the company sponsor his site once he commercializes it and charges for subscriptions (he still hasn't done so), the company acknowledges that it said "it would be willing to talk" to him, but made no commitment.

Mr. Lane says he started receiving documents from anonymous sources about a month after he launched his sites. They came in manila envelopes with various Ford return addresses. At first, he destroyed the documents and simply mentioned them in articles on his site. Once, a package of documents was dropped in the bed of one of his two full-size Ford pickup trucks.

Under a new name
About this time, Ford lawyer Don Aiken began contacting him, Mr. Lane says. Over several months, Ford asked Mr. Lane to remove from his site a link to another Ford-related site, change the name of his site, and to remove certain articles from the site. Mr. Lane complied (the two earlier sites became blueovalnews.com).

In November 1998, Mr. Lane wrote a letter to Mr. Aiken explaining that the site had grown too big and expensive to operate alone. Mr. Lane asked Ford, he recalls, "if Ford would want to take it over or sponsor it." Mr. Lane says Ford never responded.

Ford's silence angered Mr. Lane. "What media organization is going to agree to be censored and pay for everything on their own?" he says.

Mr. Lane says he posted his first actual Ford document in June this year. It was the agenda of the Mustang meeting he had attended. Others followed, including charts detailing Ford's plans for complying with federal environmental guidelines, a competitive issue among car makers. He says he had concluded that the documents themselves were so interesting that they should be posted in the original.

The turning point in Ford's strange relationship with Mr. Lane came in July this year. On July 11, Mr. Lane posted an article about problems with the powertrain of the 1999 Mustang Cobra. Mr. Lane says the article was based on Mustang documents, including internal memos, that proved what owners had always known: that the Cobra was underpowered and that team members working on the Mustang knew it.

"A person pays $30,000 for a car, and it's not right -- that's wrong," he says of why his Web site was important. Ford says it had already been made aware of the Cobra's problem and was taking action before Mr. Lane posted the information.

The Mustang posting was when Ford realized "the time for talking was over," says Ford spokesman Jim Cain. "The character of the site changed," he says. Ford was now "worrying about what was to come."

On July 12, Mr. Aiken, the Ford lawyer, called Mr. Lane and asked him to pull the article. Mr. Lane declined, but suggested that they meet. Mr. Lane and his wife met Mr. Aiken in his office at 8 a.m. the following day.

Mr. Lane says the lawyer also raised the subject of Ford's possibly providing advertising or sponsorship for the site. Ford's Mr. Cain disputes this. "We never discussed banner ads or commercial sponsorship of the site," Mr. Cain says.

In any case, the discussions ended with no agreement from Mr. Lane to remove the Cobra article. And on Aug. 18, Mr. Lane says he received a call from a woman who identified herself as an employee of Ford's legal department. "They're going to sue you. Be prepared," the woman said, according to Mr. Lane. Mr. Lane's response: "I laughed that here's somebody at Ford legal that is helping us out."

Early warning
On Tuesday, Aug. 24, he returned home from a visit to Florida to find a telephone message from a Ford lawyer, saying that Ford would be filing suit in U.S. District Court in Detroit at 9:30 the next morning. Mr. Lane went to his bedroom where his computer is located, along with a print of a photo of Henry Ford and his son Henry Ford II. He spent the next several hours scanning documents and posting them on the site. By early Wednesday morning, he had added about 100 more documents to the site, including part of the Cobra document on which his article had been based.

He and his wife went to a nearby campus of the University of Michigan and, sitting at two adjacent computers, searched for references to "freedom of speech for the media." Among the responses was a description of the 1971 Supreme Court decision on the New York Times' right to publish the Pentagon Papers, classified defense documents that had been leaked to the paper.

"I didn't know anything about it," Mr. Lane says of the case. But he was encouraged. If Defense Department documents could be published, he says, "then why can't Ford documents?"

Mr. Lane says he removed all the Ford documents from the site last week, after the lawsuit was filed. Then, over the weekend, the denuded site became inaccessible. Neither Mr. Lane nor Ford could say why.

--Sholnn Freeman contributed to this article.

That same year, Mr. Lane bought a new Apple Macintosh computer. It came with directions on how to launch a Web site. In March 1998, Mr. Lane launched his first site, fordbookstore.com, which he intended as an outlet for his restoration books. He also says he received permission from Ford to sell through his site reprints of books that had been used by Ford dealers listing the specifications of Ford models prior to 1973.

At about the same time, Mr. Lane launched a second Ford-related Web site, fordworldnews.com. He applied to Ford for a media pass to attend the company's press events so he could write about them on his site. Mr. Lane says Ford gave him the pass within a day.

Companies have long used consumer focus groups to gain insight into their needs and wants. Increasingly, those groups have moved from hotel conference rooms to cyberspace. At the same time, car makers, like other consumer businesses, are trying to foster relationships and a sense of community among customers. Ford has set up a Web site called TruckTough.com (www.trucktough.com) to create a virtual community of truck customers who will help the company create future products in the important truck segment. The site nowhere indicates that it is operated by Ford.

In this environment, Ford continued to play ball with Mr. Lane and his Web site. With his company-issued press pass, he was invited to events where he came in contact with Ford employees. At a Mustang event he was invited to by a member of a local Mustang club, Mr. Lane says, he and his wife walked into a meeting of Ford's Mustang team without being questioned. He posted the agenda from that meeting on his site.

When he suggested that the company sponsor his site once he commercializes it and charges for subscriptions (he still hasn't done so), the company acknowledges that it said "it would be willing to talk" to him, but made no commitment.

Mr. Lane says he started receiving documents from anonymous sources about a month after he launched his sites. They came in manila envelopes with various Ford return addresses. At first, he destroyed the documents and simply mentioned them in articles on his site. Once, a package of documents was dropped in the bed of one of his two full-size Ford pickup trucks.

Under a new name
About this time, Ford lawyer Don Aiken began contacting him, Mr. Lane says. Over several months, Ford asked Mr. Lane to remove from his site a link to another Ford-related site, change the name of his site, and to remove certain articles from the site. Mr. Lane complied (the two earlier sites became blueovalnews.com).

In November 1998, Mr. Lane wrote a letter to Mr. Aiken explaining that the site had grown too big and expensive to operate alone. Mr. Lane asked Ford, he recalls, "if Ford would want to take it over or sponsor it." Mr. Lane says Ford never responded.

Ford's silence angered Mr. Lane. "What media organization is going to agree to be censored and pay for everything on their own?" he says.

Mr. Lane says he posted his first actual Ford document in June this year. It was the agenda of the Mustang meeting he had attended. Others followed, including charts detailing Ford's plans for complying with federal environmental guidelines, a competitive issue among car makers. He says he had concluded that the documents themselves were so interesting that they should be posted in the original.

The turning point in Ford's strange relationship with Mr. Lane came in July this year. On July 11, Mr. Lane posted an article about problems with the powertrain of the 1999 Mustang Cobra. Mr. Lane says the article was based on Mustang documents, including internal memos, that proved what owners had always known: that the Cobra was underpowered and that team members working on the Mustang knew it.

"A person pays $30,000 for a car, and it's not right -- that's wrong," he says of why his Web site was important. Ford says it had already been made aware of the Cobra's problem and was taking action before Mr. Lane posted the information.

The Mustang posting was when Ford realized "the time for talking was over," says Ford spokesman Jim Cain. "The character of the site changed," he says. Ford was now "worrying about what was to come."

On July 12, Mr. Aiken, the Ford lawyer, called Mr. Lane and asked him to pull the article. Mr. Lane declined, but suggested that they meet. Mr. Lane and his wife met Mr. Aiken in his office at 8 a.m. the following day.

Mr. Lane says the lawyer also raised the subject of Ford's possibly providing advertising or sponsorship for the site. Ford's Mr. Cain disputes this. "We never discussed banner ads or commercial sponsorship of the site," Mr. Cain says.

In any case, the discussions ended with no agreement from Mr. Lane to remove the Cobra article. And on Aug. 18, Mr. Lane says he received a call from a woman who identified herself as an employee of Ford's legal department. "They're going to sue you. Be prepared," the woman said, according to Mr. Lane. Mr. Lane's response: "I laughed that here's somebody at Ford legal that is helping us out."

Early warning
On Tuesday, Aug. 24, he returned home from a visit to Florida to find a telephone message from a Ford lawyer, saying that Ford would be filing suit in U.S. District Court in Detroit at 9:30 the next morning. Mr. Lane went to his bedroom where his computer is located, along with a print of a photo of Henry Ford and his son Henry Ford II. He spent the next several hours scanning documents and posting them on the site. By early Wednesday morning, he had added about 100 more documents to the site, including part of the Cobra document on which his article had been based.

He and his wife went to a nearby campus of the University of Michigan and, sitting at two adjacent computers, searched for references to "freedom of speech for the media." Among the responses was a description of the 1971 Supreme Court decision on the New York Times' right to publish the Pentagon Papers, classified defense documents that had been leaked to the paper.

"I didn't know anything about it," Mr. Lane says of the case. But he was encouraged. If Defense Department documents could be published, he says, "then why can't Ford documents?"

Mr. Lane says he removed all the Ford documents from the site last week, after the lawsuit was filed. Then, over the weekend, the denuded site became inaccessible. Neither Mr. Lane nor Ford could say why.

--Sholnn Freeman contributed to this article.

Topics: Legal

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