Friday, September 11, 2009

Can a mere domain name be defamation? Glenn Beck says yes

Ars Technica: The Art of Technology

Hugely popular conservative talker Glenn Beck has sicked his lawyers on a satirical website that's been up for a week, but the attorneys may have a point on this one. The site, called, toes the line on defamation—and may have stepped across it.

Can a mere domain name be defamation? Glenn Beck says yesWhen someone registers a domain like, they probably expect to hear from Glenn Beck's lawyers. In this case, it took two days. The site's anonymous operator tells Ars that the whole thing is satire—but that may not be enough to avoid charges of defamation.

Gilbert Gottfried, what have you started?

The controversy started a week ago in the Fark forums, where someone picked up on an old Gilbert Gottfried roast of the "comedian" (scare quotes fully intended) Bob Saget. During the roast, Gottfried repeatedly said (watch the video) that Saget had "not raped and killed a girl in 1990." The Fark forums took the joke about the power of insinuation and applied it to right-wing talk show host Glenn "Obama is a racist" Beck.

One of the Fark readers then took the forum meme to the next level, registering a domain name and launching a web site in order to make a point about talking head TV demagoguery. "Why won't Glenn Beck deny these allegations?" asks the site. "We're not accusing Glenn Beck of raping and murdering a young girl in 1990—in fact, we think he didn't! But we can't help but wonder, since he has failed to deny these horrible allegations. Why won't he deny that he raped and killed a young girl in 1990?" At the very bottom of the page was a small text disclaimer saying that the site was satirical.

I spoke to the anonymous owner of the site, who tells Ars that launching it "just felt right"—it flipped the "birther" non-falsifiable conspiracy theories about Obama's birth and citizenship around and applied the same tactics to one of the biggest talking heads (no pun intended?) on cable news. It's just "using Beck's tactics against him" and is a small way of "directing all this frustration" with Beck and others into action.


The site went up on September 1 and had a huge spike of initial interest—it served more than 120,000 page loads in the first 24 hours. By September 3, lawyers for Beck's media company, Mercury Radio Arts, had contacted the domain registrar demanding that the "highly defamatory domain name" be deleted, that the WhoisGuard privacy protection service be revoked, and that the owner's contact information be turned over to the lawyers.

Registrar NameCheap didn't do this, of course, and Beck's lawyers sent another letter the next day, making the same demands. They also showed that they were reading the website: "We also note that it appears you contacted the individual, as he states on his website hosted on the Defamatory Domain that 'my webhost is taking some flak over this website, so if he gets shuts me down, it may take a bit to get rehosted.'"

The registrar did change the site's nameservers without alerting the owner, but allowed him to change them back once he contacted the company, and the site remains up. The owner also registered additional backup domains, such as "" (form of a question!) and "" (inoffensive!).

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