The Dangers of Posting Negative Reviews

Now here is a story for you.

Just imagine that you buy something over the Internet and it never arrives. It happened to me once with a folding bike, and I lost my money. But at least if you use PayPal you have some chance to get your money back. Oh the benefits of hindsight!

So you buy something from a company over the Internet. The object does not turn up. You call the company, no answer, you write to them repeatedly, send them emails, try all the numbers you can find but nobody responds.

What do you do? You go on a review site and you tell the story. Well that is a dangerous game!



As this article on CNN explains, in 2008 John Palmer bought his wife Christmas gifts off The gifts didn’t arrive and he followed the path described above as many of us would.

More than three years later, Mr Palmer received an e-mail appearing to be from stating that they would be fined $3,500 if the negative review wasn’t taken down within 72 hours.

So as any threatened person would he tried to have it removed. But the review company couldn’t remove it without entering into arbitration, costing money, so the review remained.

What about freedom of speech? Well you might well ask. When you buy something or have any contracted action with a company you might be signing away your freedom of speech. Yes, fine print.

If you look in the terms of sale and you find something like the following “Your acceptance of this sales contract prohibits you from taking any action that negatively impacts” as in the sale mentioned above, you waive your rights goodbye.

The company can stipulate how much you are liable for as well. Then you have to pay up or go to court, run up huge legal bills and argue that the clause is not legal.

With Christmas just round the corner, Kwanzaa and birthday presents to shop for, holidays and flights to book and many others, what are we going to do? Do we have time to read 10 pages of contractual terms each time we buy something? Would we understand it anyway?

It looks like another form of cyber-bullying to me.

Taxes on Internet shopping

Here in the US the Senate just passed the Marketplace Fairness Act, and it is causing a great deal of debate on all sides.

I want you to pay taxes

Pay more taxes on your online goods

In the USA each state can levy its own sales tax. The rate is not equal across the states, for example here in Massachusetts I pay 6.25% sales tax on my new fridge, but if I drive to New Hampshire I do not pay anything. You can check out the differences on this interactive tax map.

The legislation described above aims to make Internet sellers collect the taxes due to the buyer’s state, something they are not currently required to do. At the moment I order my fridge from a New Hampshire based Internet retailer and I don’t pay any tax. In theory I should go and pay the state myself, but with online sales worth billions there is no enforcement and no queues (lines) outside the tax office.

Retail outlets argue that this gives online sellers an unfair advantage, but they in turn argue that the collecting and payment of state taxes under the new proposed regime would be expensive and extremely complicated. If they sell me the fridge here it costs a certain amount, they have to collect the tax and pay it to Massachusetts, but my friend in Florida pays a different amount and the tax is paid to the state there. Now this might not be too complicated a system for Amazon to manage, but a small Internet based retailer might not have the technical expertise or personnel to carry it out.

The proposed bill does exclude traders who sell under a million dollars of goods, but in today’s world that could still be a very small organization.

The technical difficulties of collecting the taxes through any other means seem insurmountable though, and the problem is very much related to the idea that borders can be controlled. States have different laws about selling many things, but if these things can be bought on the Internet and shipped to an individual house I cannot see how these rules can be adequately enforced. Is it a form of smuggling to buy something that you cannot get in your own state?

The result of the bill (if it passes although it does have bi-partisan support) will be that local sales tax will be levied at source and so the fridge will cost more. Maybe this is just and fair, maybe it will choke some smaller businesses, who knows?

What do you think?

What is Shodan?

EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 75th post on Technology Bloggers! Jonny was a complete newbie to blogging when he wrote his first post (about prosthetic limbs) but he is now somewhat of an expert – although he probably wouldn’t agree! – note by Christopher

Recently a couple of articles have appeared on large US websites about a type of search engine called Shodan. This search engine has been about for about 3 years, but it is different from Google and its cohorts in many ways. I looked at it and could not understand it at all, so what is it then and why is it causing such concern?

A screenshot of the Shodan website

Expose online devices

I have seen Shodan described as “The scariest search engine on the Internet”. This CNN money article explains that Shodan navigates the Internet’s back channels. It’s a kind of “dark” Google, looking for the servers, webcams, printers, routers and all the other stuff that is connected to and makes up the Internet.

What interest could there be in such capability? Well a lot apparently. The system allows an individual to find security cameras, cooling systems and all types of home control systems that we have connected to the Internet. (See Christopher’s series about his British Gas system here).

One serious problem is that many of these systems have little or no security because they are not perceived as threatened. Shodan searchers have however found control systems for a water park, a gas station, a hotel wine cooler and a crematorium. Cybersecurity researchers have even located command and control systems for nuclear power plants and a particle-accelerating cyclotron by using Shodan.

Hacking apart it turns out that the world is full of systems that are attached via router to the office computer and web server, and on to the outside world. Access for anyone who can find them and might like to turn of the refrigeration at the local ice rink, shut down a city’s traffic lights or just turn off a hydroelectric plant.

The Shodan system was designed to help police forces and others who might have legitimate need for such a tool, but what when it gets into the wrong hands. Security is non existent, just get your free account and do a few searches and see what you find.

See this Tech News World article for a further look at the ethical and practical issues that such a freely available product might bring

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in these types of problems through my work at the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. I am not sure how the development and marketing of such a tool could be seen as responsible behaviour, but as I have been told on many occasions during interviews there are plenty of other ways of finding out such things. These types of systems are gathering already available information to make it usable, nothing more, so not doing anything wrong.

Do you agree?