On the stand last week, Pamela Olsen, co-owner with her husband of a small coffee roasting company called Bayside Roasters, cried when she recounted the feelings she had gone through in November and December of 2005.
On the Sunday before Thanksgiving of that year, she got a call from one of her customers telling her to check out her company's website. She tried to do so, but she kept being redirected to another page - a specific page of "The Urban Dictionary," a comedy website, that gave several off-color definitions of the word "asshole." Being a computer novice, she assumed that she had done something wrong, so she kept trying. Finally she realized that her website was the Urban Dictionary page. The photos of her family and their life story were all gone. In their place: "Asshole."
She and her husband Kregen, who roasted the coffee and did most all the legwork for the company, were freaked out. They sought out a friend they had hired to do work on the site, and who had the passwords to their Internet account. After a little bit of headscratching, the friend figured out that the domain name associated with their website - "www.baysideroasters.com" - no longer belonged to the Olsens. It belonged to Tim Dominick, co-owner of Sacred Grounds Organic Coffee Roasters - their direct competitor.
It was at that moment in the story that Pamela Olsen, on the stand testifying in the long-brewing lawsuit she and her husband had brought against Dominick, first shed tears.
"My thought was, they're really out to get us now, and we're going down," she said.
As has already been reported in the Times-Standard and elsewhere, the Olsens' lawsuit against Tim Dominick prevailed last week. The jury ruled, in essence, that Tim Dominick had used the Internet like a shaman uses a voodoo doll. He captured a piece of electronic property that had once belonged to his competitors, and proceeded to stick pins in it. The jury found that he had libeled Pamela and Kregen Olsen, his competitors in the Humboldt County coffee industry, and that he maliciously intended to inflict emotional distress upon them.
The Internet is still a new medium. For most people, it's a weird and sometimes frightening place, only half understood and somewhat akin to magic. For some people, the rules of online behavior are completely different from everyday life. Tim Dominick never would have printed up posters associating Kregen Olsen and Bayside Roasters with the word "asshole," but for some reason he didn't flinch at doing so electronically, in the comfort of his home or place of business.
What this case showed, first, was how badly a momentary act of electronic vandalism can injure someone, especially when the vandal insists upon his right to vandalize. More surprisingly, the case also demonstrated how badly, and how strangely, such actions can backfire.
Tim Dominick never denied that he bought thedomain name associated with the Bayside Roasters website, or that he linked it up to the Urban Dictionary definition of the word "asshole." But at trial he and his attorney, Steven Schectman, insisted that his actions were perfectly legal, and not performed with malicious intent.
When he testified, Dominick, who is the lead roaster for Sacred Grounds, confirmed that he had often tinkered with the Internet, teaching himself its workings more or less as a hobby. While dinking around on the computer one day in 2005, he noticed that Bayside Roasters' web site was down. Researching the matter further, he found that it had apparently been down for some time. The site's domain name, an address leased to website owners for specified periods of time, had expired in May and was now up for sale. Dominick decided that he would buy the domain name - it was an "impulse buy," he said. At some point after the purchase, he set it up so that anyone visiting the site would be automatically forwarded to the Urban Dictionary page.
Under questioning from the Olsens' attorney, Bill Barnum, Dominick said that he did not intend for the link to be a reflection on the Olsens or Bayside Roasters. He said that he figured they no longer had any interest in the web site, as they had let their domain name expire.
"I put it on the site because: a) I had just learned how to do that with the Internet, and b) that was what was on my desktop at the time," Dominick said. He said that someone e-mailed him a link to the Urban Dictionary page, and that he had found it "amusing."
The Olsens, meanwhile, were shocked and devastated. They immediately notified Barnum's office; the attorney was out of town for Thanksgiving week. Then, they testified, they set about limiting the damage to their business' reputation. The domain name was printed on every bag of coffee that the company sold, so they drove from market to market crossing out that portion of their label with a black marker. Bayside Roasters had produced specialty lines of coffees for several youth organizations, so they contacted those organizations and had them remove references to the Bayside Roasters page from their own websites.
During the trial, the Olsens made it clear that neither of them were at all web-savvy. Pamela Olsen, when she first registered the domain name a year and a half previous with the help of a friend, had understood that she had leased it for three years. She said that she had never received a bill to inform her that she would need to re-register the site. (The cost of a yearly lease for a domain name is trivial - usually around $10). She wasn't even in the habit of checking the site very often, assuming that the simple content she and some of her McKinleyville Middle School students had put up would be there until a revamped website, which was in the works, was put in its place.
After Thanksgiving week was over, Dominick received a letter from Barnum demanding that he return the domain name to Bayside Roasters. In response, Dominick switched the content of baysideroasters.com. No longer did it forward to the Urban Dictionary; now it forwarded to the American Civil Liberties Union's page on freedom of speech issues. During the trial, Dominick confirmed that this was intended as a message to Barnum and his clients.
A couple of weeks after Dominick relinked the baysideroasters.com page to the ACLU, he relented and signed the rights for the domain name back over to the Olsens. On the day that he did so, Pamela Olsen searched Google for her domain name ("www.baysideroasters.com"). She was surprised to see that one of the links the search engine offered up was to a pornography site entitled "Small Ass." She called her husband in to look at the page.
Kregen Olsen testified that the link contained "disgusting," beyond-the-pale pornographic images. And he felt certain, given recent experiences, that Tim Dominick was somehow behind it, working his computer mojo to ensure that Google would offer up pornographic images when people went to look for his coffee.
"I felt that someone was very determined to hurt my business," Kregen Olsen said. "At this point, I felt fear."
This ended up being a separate cause of action in the Olsens' suit against Tim Dominick - not only had he bought their domain name and linked it with The Urban Dictionary, he had also arranged for the "Small Ass" site to come up in a Google search for baysideroasters.com. Incredibly, this charge went forward at trial, and even succeeded, despite the fact that the prosecution had no direct evidence whatsoever that Dominick had done so.
In addition to having no concrete evidence, Barnum had no consistent theory about how Dominick might have gone about doing so. Early in the proceedings, his questioning seemed to suggest that Dominick accomplished the deed by somehow altering the content of the "Small Ass" site.
"Isn't it true," Barnum asked, "that in November or December of 2005, you went on a porn site and placed the name `baysideroasters.com' in the searchable text of the website?"
"No," Dominick said. He added that he had never seen the site in question.
Later in the trial, though, following the testimony of an expert witness, Barnum's theory seemed to shift. He argued not that Dominick had altered the text of a pornography site to associate it with baysideroasters.com; rather, he argued that Dominick had altered the content of baysideroasters.com to associate it with the pornography site.
Barnum admitted that his case, as regards the pornography links, was circumstantial. In the end, during closing arguments, he fell back on an analogy that he attributed to a legal colleague. If you see a turtle on top of a fencepost, he said, you can draw a conclusion: Someone, some human agency, put it there.
"How does this apply to Tim Dominick?" Barnum said to the jury. "How do you think that porn site got there in that month? How do you think it went away when we objected?" This argument carried the day - the jury concluded that not only did some human agent cause the "Small Ass" site to appear in the search results for baysideroasters.com, but that Tim Dominick, specifically, was that agent.
Throughout the trial, it was clear that neither Barnum nor Schectman had much experience with the Internet. Schectman repeatedly referred to the WHOIS database - the industry-wide registry of domain names and their owners - as the "whosits database." Barnum alleged that in engineering the Google search results, Dominick had unleashed what is known as a "Googlebomb" - a phrase that usually refers to a large-scale attempt to make a common phrase relate to a particular person ("miserable failure" for President George Bush, for example). Apart with noting the lack of evidence, Schectman found only one way to poke holes in Barnum's theory. He noted that a few other spam sites also came up when searching for baysideroasters.com, including one purportedly about "news, cars, sports and sex." Did Dominick arrange for that site to come up too? He never received an answer.
In fact, there is another bit of Internet jargon that could also account for why pornography came up when searching for the Olsens' domain name: "spamdexing." This is the process, familiar to anyone who spends any amount of time on the computer, whereby shady websites looking to boost their traffic automatically trawl the web to pick out key words to include in their own text, piggybacking on the search results of legitimate sites. In fact, the "news, cars, sports and sex" site that Schectman pointed out still comes up when one searches for "baysideroasters.com." If the "Small Ass" website used this extremely common technique, it would have had nothing to do with Dominick at all. But none of that found its way into the courtroom.
Pamela and Kregen Olsen both testifiedin court that long before the events on trial, they had understood Sacred Grounds to be hostile to their business. Bayside Roasters had taken over some of Sacred Grounds' old accounts, and had succeeded in getting their product placed in all of the area's high-quality grocery stores, alongside Sacred Grounds. Pamela Olsen testified that she had heard from some retail coffee buyers and other members of the business community that the Dominicks were talking badly about her husband behind their back, saying that he was "aggressive." Kregen Olsen testified that his wife's most recent telephone interaction with Beth Dominick, Tim's wife and the president of Sacred Grounds, was "full of rudeness" on Dominick's part, and had left his wife shaken. But neither the plaintiffs or the defense asked Pamela Olsen about the details of that conversation.
For their part, both Tim and Beth Dominick claimed that they had not felt threatened by Bayside Roasters - that, in fact, their relations up to that point had been cordial. Beth Dominick testified that she had given Kregen Olsen advice about untapped markets in Humboldt County when they first met at a "Wine, Cheese and Chocolate" fundraiser in late 2004, just as Bayside Roasters was getting started. She recalled the telephone conversation with Pamela Olsen, which had concerned coffee sales at the Arcata Farmers' Market, as being somewhat charged, but ultimately conciliatory. "She shared that her company was just trying to make it," Dominick said. "I said, `Yeah, it is tough.'"
Still, the jury believed the Olsen's version of events, and ruled that Tim Dominick must have acted with malice when he bought baysideroasters.com and linked it to the dictionary definition of the word "asshole." Indeed, when the case is stated plainly it is hard to imagine him acting with anything other than malice. When challenged, he switched the site to forward to the ACLU Free Speech page instead of the Urban Dictionary, and that likely demonstrated to the jury that he felt no remorse.
People will have different ideas about whether the punishment Dominick received is too severe or not severe enough. Whether it was a prank or a serious hate campaign, he made a momentary decision that ended up causing others a great deal of emotional harm, and he later stood by his right to do so. The jury ordered him to pay some $37,000 in direct compensation for the Olsens' pain and suffering, and authorized the judge to levy further punitive damages as punishment.
What is certain, though, is that the punishment he receives from the case will go well beyond whatever number of dollars this trial ends up costing him. Ever since the story first appeared in the Times-Standard on Saturday, local web sites have been fairly abuzz with the case. On the Times-Standard website itself, anonymous writers have called the Dominicks "creeps" (arguably a stronger word than "asshole") and have called for a boycott of Sacred Grounds coffee. On other local blogs, anonymous writers have used stronger words to vilify them. (The Olsens haven't escaped this second wave of Internet calumny either - anonymous comments that would be libelous for this paper to repeat have attacked them for their actions in the matter.)
Schadenfreude: It's the tendency to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, and it's reprehensible. As this case has demonstrated in more ways than one, it is also the backbone of the Internet.