on the
Really Useful Forum

The Really Useful Forum is a discussion board on the Really Useful Company's web site. Over the past year it has been frequently abused by imposters, troublemakers, and people intent on harassing certain fans. This has varied between general mischief making, and the malicious targeting of certain groups of posters. By the end of last year it reached unbearable levels with users being harassed daily.

In spite of numerous complaints the Really Useful Group would do nothing to help the victims of the harassment track the abusers down. Their web company, who maintain the Forum, had logs tracking the IP numbers of posters, but would not release these to people so that they could discover the identity of the abusers.

Then Karin Willison, who runs the Shadow Song web site, discovered how easy it was to install IP tracking on such a Forum. She discovered that she only needed to insert 5 lines of code to the CGI script running the Forum for it to display the domain name or IP address that each post came from. She made the modification to her own board, driving away some troublemakers, and informed the RUG that all they needed to do was implement this simple change, a matter of minutes work. They did nothing. Other boards which had suffered similar though less severe problems installed the script and the troubles went away. The Really Useful Company refused to make the change.

This lead to accusations of negligence against them. The behavior on the Forum was easily harassment under US Law, and the victims had redress in law -- if they could track down and identify the perpetrators. By failing to add the code the RUG were denying them the chance to do this. When a prudent person observes injurious behavior and has the ability to stop it, they are expected to. Failure to act at that point becomes negligence. The RUG had the responsibility to take reasonable measures to prevent abuse of their Forum. They were shown a way that would satisfy the victims and would take less than 5 minutes to implement. They did not do it.

Some posts to rec.arts.theatre.musicals discussed the situation:

Subject: Really Useful Group and fans on the web
From: Fantome461
Date: 1997/12/09

I don't know how many of you have visited the Really Useful Group's web site, but it has a Forum web board there for discussion of musicals. Last year I think it was closed down after lots of abuse by certain users, and it was opened again a few months ago.

Since then the abuse has continued, with imposters impersonating regular posters to cause trouble, people posting rubbish and obscene things, people purposely starting fights, and people harassing and insulting a few particular users and in one case someone they had a grudge against from another forum who never even used the Really Useful Group one. This has been going on for a long time and the RUG keep saying they will install a password system or something, but nothing has been done and they haven't traced the imposters or troublemakers even though the abuse has got pretty serious and nasty at times.

Last week one user discovered how easy it was to set the Forum to show the domain the posts are coming from or the IP address (as is now happening at musicals.net). It takes 2 lines more in the CGI script and could be done by a web/net company in about 2 minutes. They posted this and wrote to the RUG about it, but still nothing was done, the harassment has continued! They people being harassed were naturally furious. It was brought up that harassment is a federal offense and that by doing nothing about it, even protecting the harassers by making it impossible for the people being attacked to find out who was doing it, the Really Useful Group could be liable for the harassment. There was talk of lawsuits.

After only a few incidents like this on the boards at musicals.mit.edu they set the boards up to display the IP address of users, so why doesn't the RUG do the same? it would take them minutes, but they appear to prefer to let the abuse of their Forum and its users carry on. They should have done something about this ages ago but they are doing nothing.

A lot of people are very angry about this. The RUG actually deletes fromthe Forum posts discussing this issue even though abusive posts have stayed up for days before being deleted.

This is a disgrace to the Really Useful Company and it can only blacken the name of Andrew Lloyd Webber when his company gets threatened with harassment laws by his own fans!

People who have written to them haven't even had replies. it's been going on for MONTHS and they have done nothing.


Subject: Re: Really Useful Group and fans on the web
From: Christine Daae
Date: 1997/12/10

I'd like to clarify this, as when it was mentioned on the Forum it lead to a lot of very ill-informed people warbling on about suing each other. In fact, no one threatened to sue the Really Useful Company or bring a lawsuit against them because the laws in question are criminal and not civil matters - the state would prosecute, not individuals. Federal laws and the NY State Penal Code cover harassment of this form.

>After only a few incidents like this on the boards at musicals.mit.edu they
>set the boards up to display the IP address of users, so why doesn't the RUG
>do the same?

That is what is particularly annoying about it all. It's bad enough that the RUC have let this carry on so long without blocking the abusive users or setting up a password system, but at least one can understand that those solutions might take time and money. Setting a CGI-based web board like this to display the domain names or IP addresses of posters is a very, very simple matter. It would take minutes, as you say. I could do it myself if I had access to their servers. It would at least be a temporary measure which would cut down on the troubles - you can't impersonate someone very well when their domain is cdaae.easynet.co.uk and yours is idiot.netcom.com, or whatever.

There are clearly quite a few different people taking advantage of the anonymity of the Really Useful Forum to cause trouble and harass others for some months. In some cases, we have pretty strong ideas who they are because they've attacked mailing lists - but with no IP addresses, and the RUC refusing to co-operate, we have no evidence, and can't be sure exactly which posts are from those people and which from others.

If the Really Useful Company can't even manage a simple web site (or pay someone else to do the job decently), how on earth do they manage all their shows?

Or should I not bother asking that of a company that lost $10 million not so long ago?


Subject: Re: Really Useful Group and fans on the web
From: BethTruman
Date: 1997/12/09

On Mon, 08 Dec 1997 21:14:50 -0600, "Carlos M. Nash" wrote:

>Fantome461 wrote:
>>Snip: [Wonderful speech in re: to RUC forum and abusers]
>Hello Fiona,
>It is the very reason why I abandoned the Forum from the word go.
>The first time around, the trolls were unbearable. So I decided that
>if RUC did not protect its readers, then it wasn't worth visiting.

One thing that has surprised me is how many people there defend the Really Useful Company, defend them not doing anything to protect its users. I don't think it is unreasonable to expect a company running a web board to take simple precautions against it being used for abuse and harassment. One of the people who often gets singled out doesn't even post to the Forum, so it's not as if just not using the place is the answer! I have been putting up with the trolls to enjoy a few worthwhile threads, but I think if I were the one being called an ugly bitch and similar things, I would be furious with the RUC too.


Subject: Re: Really Useful Group and fans on the web From: Fantome461 Date: 1997/12/10

On Tue, 09 Dec 1997 Shari Perkins wrote:

>After being horribly insulted the first time I posted on RUG, I wrote a
>complaint to the webmaster - a few days later I got a reply thanking me
>for letting them know ... I wonder if anything will ever be done. I will
>not be using the forum again, however. Theatre is a great pleasure for
>me and I refuse to allow the "trolls" to ruin the experience for me.

I don't think they have done anything about individuals. There are some there who cannot disagree with someone without being rude to them and they are still allowed to post. I have read some horrendous things there. A poster named Gavin called a user a bitch twice in one day and nothing was done about him.

I say bravo to Christine for putting pressure on the RUG to do something about the situation, though I'll bet it simply makes her more unpopular with them than the imposters and troublemakers are. They don't care if their users are abused, only if they have a threat of bad publicity.


Subject: Re: Really Useful Group and fans on the web From: BethTruman Date: 1997/12/13

>To maintain a forum requires a lot of work and I wish posters
>knew this. My web designer, Mark Bakalor, spends an enormous
>amount of time to keep our forum "All That Chat" free from
>the nonsense that plagues other websites. We do have very
>detailed access reports as to where posts are coming from,
>time, servers, etc. etc. and as a result, have very few problems,
>but still, it requires time but occasionally, a moron pops up.
>Whatcha gonna do?

I don't think people should run a Forum if they're not willing to do *something* about it though. You monitor your forum and delete posts you think are unduly offensive, and you say you have detailed access reports on where the posts are coming from, so presumably you could track down someone who persistantly posted things of the sort that appeared on the RUC's site. And if they can't be bothered to track down the people who are constantly making personal attacks on other users, they should at least provide the information to the people suffering the attacks.

They are now closing the Forum in the evenings and at weekends, so it is only open during NY office hours. That means the imposters can't post, or if they do it gets deleted immediately, but people who can only post from home after school miss out. It would be a lot more simple to do the few minutes work necessary to have the board display the origins of posts, surely. I don't see that there is any privacy issue as it isn't giving out their email address. It is giving out less information about the posters than people posting here give out.

It is such a pity some people have to spoil it for everyone else, but it is also a pity the Really Useful Company provided an open forum for people to take advantage of like that.

May I ask you a question, V.J? If someone on your board posted a number of posts which were purely personal abuse of another regular poster, and that poster asked to know where your logs recorded the posts as coming from, would you tell them? Do you think they'd have a right to lodge a complaint with that person's service provider?


See why we're getting annoyed?
Phantom's 10th anniversary
The RUG compared to other companies
Their behavior on the Web
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