That Time I Trolled the Entire Internet
The turn of the millenium was an interesting period on the web. Google was around, but I knew just as many people who used AltaVista, WebCrawler, Yahoo, or even link directories that aspired and claimed to manualy curate and categorize every site on the web. There was no concept of a social network; Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and even MySpace were still years away. Word-of-mouth was still one of the most reliable ways to find good content on the web, which generally included sites like SlashDot, Something Awful, The Register, User Friendly, and (if you kept particularly perverse company) Rotten.com or Stile Project.
One of my favorite websites back then was The Landover Baptist Church. It’s a religious satire site that is still around today, but used to be a bit more subtle. I, in my irreverent youth, decided I would do something similar. I loved to push people’s buttons and evoke strong, irrational and emotional reactions, and I would use my newly acquired official-sounding domain to do just that.
“Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” —Poe’s Law
I still have the source code from the original incarnation of Net Authority, and it is not very pretty. The spaghetti mess of Perl scripts that do little more than dump raw HTML, server-side includes, and horrifying conditional CSS hacks to handle Internet Explorer, while somewhat nostalgic, make me appreciate even more just how far we have come since then.
I wrote up a set of “guidelines” to be followed by all internet users. My goal in later incarnations was to make the religious aspects less overt, but initially I didn’t try to hide the apparent motivation behind the “organization.”
What is Net Authority?
The Net Authority is a group of individuals who have taken it upon themselves to govern the Internet. We have waited patiently and in vain for the World’s governments to put their resources together and develop a standard set of guidelines for what material should be permitted on the Internet, and what should not. We have prayed without answer for a centralized agency with the power and the means to stop crimes against humanity on the Internet. The time for waiting has ended. Clearly we, the people, must take matters into our own hands. Net Authority writes those guidelines. Net Authority is that agency.
The stated purpose of the provided guidelines was “to simply organize and prioritize all that is blasphemous in the eyes of God.” The guidelines were essentially a listing of various different types of pornography, organized and grouped in a way to be as offensive as possible (in later incarnations, interracial relationships were lumped in with bestiality, for example), as well as broader categories such as “Hate Literature” and “General Blasphemy.”
Net Authority provided a simple web form through which visitors could “report” offenders. These offenders could be either publishers or consumers of the various types of forbidden material on the internet. Upon submitting the form, which asked a few simple questions such as the offender’s email address, web url (if applicable), and which specific guidelines had been violated. My devilish little Perl script would gather up the inputs and craft a personalized email to the offender.
To: “$name” <$email>
From: “Net Authority Investigations” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Notification of Internet Violations
It has recently been brought to our attention that you are, or have been, in violation of the Net Authority Acceptable Internet Usage Guidelines. It has been reported that you $involvement offensive materials over the Internet.
Net Authority has investigated these claims and verified that they are true.
As a result, your personal information has been added to one or more Net Authority Internet offender databases. Your information will be stored in the databases until enough evidence has been gathered against you to warrant further actions. To help avoid such a situation, it is strongly recommended that you cease your immoral actions on the Internet at once.
You have been added to the following databases:
– Hate Literature Offenders
– Pornography Offenders
– General Blasphemy Offenders
If you would like more information about Net Authority or the Net Authority Acceptable Internet Usage Guidelines, you may read the details at http://www.netauthority.org/. It is imperative that you fully understand the guidelines if you wish to avoid further prosecution.
May God be with you as you struggle to overcome these evil impulses. You will be in our prayers at night.
I added a few other bells and whistles to the site, such as a hit counter and a database backend that kept track of and displayed how many submissions I received in each category. I also threw up a copy of WebBBS. My hope was that people would submit their friends and elicit a few salty comments on the forum to amuse me and my friends. If I had known at the time just how crazy things would get… well… who am I kidding? I still would have done it and probably would have been even more excited for what was about to come.
I imagine I completed the site well into the wee hours of the morning, as I was in the habit of working through the night in those days. I do remember that as soon as I had completed and tested all of my hastily hacked together Perl scripts, I submitted the first handful of internet “offenders” myself. I reported a few of my friends, of course, though they had already known about my plans for the domain so it was more of a way to notify them that it was done and live. I also reported a couple of “e/n” sites (which was what blogs were sometimes called before the term “blog” had gained wider adoption). In those days most sites still had a footer which proudly suggested that you “contact the webmaster” if you had any problems, so finding relevant email addresses was easy. I plugged the emails and urls for a few popular sites into my web form, checked off a few boxes, hit the submit button, and then probably went to bed and crashed until I had to go to work a few hours later.
The first thing that tipped me off that something interesting was going on was when Net Authority stopped loading in my web browser. I was running it from a server in my house, so I logged in at the console to see if a process had crashed or something, only to find that the whole system had slowed to a crawl. I had a summer job to get to, and didn’t leave myself a lot of time in the mornings, so I simply rebooted the machine and headed in to work.
Over the course of the day, through various ICQ messages from friends and excited coworkers who knew of my little side project, I learned that not only had the “offenders” posted blog entries about Net Authority, but my little prank had spread like wildfire through the entire “e/n” universe. It became both obvious that the site was failing due to the massive load of traffic it was now receiving, and also imperative that I get it back up and running as soon as possible. After a bit of investigative work over SSH, I figured out that WebBBS was the primary issue. After disabling it and replacing the forum with a simple “offline for maintenance” message, the server was happy once again.
The newly unburdened server also meant that my Net Authority email, which was hosted on the same machine, also suddenly became available. I was flooded with a deluge of hate mail the likes of which I could never have imagined. When I had initially crafted the site, I assumed that even a modicum of investigation on the part of the automated message recipients would reveal it all to be obvious satire. I did not account for the fact that nobody would bother to investigate. Many more emails than I would have guessed were clearly from people who were not in on the joke. That was my first sign that the whole thing may not have been the great idea I had originally thought it to be.
“Well, you know you’ve arrived when the God Squad starts waving bibles at you. This missive arrived this morning at Vulture Central. We haven’t got the faintest idea what it’s about, but ignorance is no excuse.” —Lester Haines, The Register
The next sign I got was when my cellphone started ringing from phone numbers I didn’t recognize. Apparently I hadn’t stopped to think about the consequences of supplying my real name and contact information in the whois records for the netauthority.org domain. Some aspiring young internet sleuth had clearly used his or her skills to “dox” me. My real name and phone number were now associated with this website that, it was becoming more and more clear, very few people found to be as humorous as I did.
“Get a fucking grip, you scared, lost little sheep. This isn’t the dark ages, and your pathetic little site is only inadvertently supplying the internet with humor, as is clearly evident by the posts on your messageboard.” —Joe Rogan
I quickly changed my phone number with the registrar to point to a free voicemail service. I wish I had saved some of the messages I received from people, but there was no good way to record them from my Nokia phone. In the back of my mind I was still a little worried about just how much trouble I could actually get into, but the endless entertainment and my massively inflated sense of self-importance from all of the blog posts, links, phone calls, and emails that continued to pour in clouded my judgement. My uncle, whose first initial is the same as mine and was listed in the Calgary phone book as “R. Muiznieks,” started receiving middle-of-the-night calls from irate people thinking he was me. Suffice it to say he was not happy about this. It was around then that my parents began to suspect that I was up to no good.
Eventually, the inevitable legal threat arrived.
Sadly, I can no longer find a copy of the original email, but the gist of it was that a pregnant woman in Texas had received the automated offender email and was so distraught by it that I had “endangered the life of her unborn child.” The email was purportedly from the woman’s lawyer, who demanded monetary compensation (I believe the amount was $5,000), and threatened legal action if I did not comply.
Being a naive kid barely out of his teens, I had no idea if the email was actually legit or not. I decided it was time to fess up and let “the adults” in on my ongoing prank to help assess just how badly I may have messed up. I’m not sure what went through my parents’ heads when I explained to them what was going on, but their suggestion upon seeing the legal threat was to take it to my boss who could have the company’s lawyers look it over.
“You punks try anything with me and I’ll make you famous.” —bartcop
I was nervous as hell when I asked my boss for a meeting. I remember the long walk to his office with a printout of the legal threat clutched in my sweaty hands. He took one look at my face after I closed the door of his office behind me and said “uh oh, what did you do Rudi?”
Fortunately my boss had a good sense of humor about the whole thing. He ran the email by the company lawyer who said it was so rife with spelling, grammatical, and legal errors that I needn’t be too concerned about it. “You should probably shut that site down, though,” he concluded. My boss nodded fervently in agreement.
In the end, my fifteen minutes of fame included recognition by The Register, several blogs including Stile Project, I Want a New Girlfriend, Joe Rogan, Something Awful, and a ton of other sites and forums that may not even exist anymore today. It was the first time in my life that I published something on the internet which was discovered independently by people who knew me in real life—a truly bizarre and exciting experience for me. Net Authority even earned its own Wikipedia entry.
While I did take the site down after that meeting with my boss, I couldn’t stay away forever. A few years later I spun Net Authority back up in a slightly watered down form. Instead of sending automated emails, I published a list of “offensive” websites submitted by users, each with their own comments section. Net Authority would never soar to the same heights of popularity in its new incarnation, but it still managed to snag a little taste of infamy from time to time.
—Clip from The Now Show, BBC, 13 July 2007
Thinking back on those times and browsing through my old Perl code surfaces feelings of amusement, but also a bit of horror at just how audacious I was. Net Authority was essentially a bulk quasi-legal-threat spamming machine that I was responsible for, but had basically no control over. My mind is put slightly at ease, however, by this little snippet of code that I wrote to validate the email addresses. Clearly I had at least a little prescience. Who knows what would have happened had I not thrown that first
elsif clause in there?
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