Internet vigilante erases author's cyber messages

Michael Wolff has made a killing off the Internet. Now someone is killing him off the 'Net.

An Internet terrorist is systematically removing every message the New York-based author of well-known Internet books posts in cyberspace. Mr. Wolff said the anonymous person also has found a way to impersonate the author to send threatening electronic mail.


Using a hacker's program called Cancelmoose, and hiding behind a computer in Finland, someone deleted more than 150 messages Mr. Wolff posted to Usenet newsgroups, the Internet's discussion groups.

The self-declared vigilante announced to the Internet community that Mr. Wolff's messages, which discussed his latest book, were blatant advertising that violated unwritten rules of the 'Net.


With the vigilante's automated program still running, Mr. Wolff is effectively shut off from the nearly 9,000 newsgroups. The vigilante also has found a way to write e-mail that appears to be from Mr. Wolff.

"I'm actually getting threatening e-mail from myself," Mr. Wolff said. "Someone is making it clear they can make my life miserable."

Mr. Wolff's experience is the latest battle in a war over the commercialization of the Internet. Because no one owns or governs the worldwide computer system the rules are being decided by each of the more than 20 million users, said Shari Steele, director of legal services for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Washington-based organization defends freedom of expression in cyberspace.

"There's a real concern that people with unpopular opinions can be silenced with the technology available," she said. "That hasn't happened too much because the people on-line haven't tolerated it."

But such conflicts are inevitable, she said. They're the growing pains of an emerging technology.

"There's an unwritten set of rules, called Netiquette, that governs what's acceptable and what isn't," Ms. Steele said. "Sometimes people take enforcing that too far; that's when we get vigilantism."

Mr. Wolff's troubles began three weeks ago, shortly after the third of his best-selling NetGuide reference books, "NetChat," was released. The book is an index of discussion groups in cyberspace, with brief descriptions of each.

From Dec. 9 to Dec. 11, Mr. Wolff and his staff posted excerpts of the book to some of the groups mentioned and solicited responses.


By Dec. 12, more than 500 e-mail messages flooded the author's office. Then, on Dec. 13 the e-mail stopped. That afternoon every message Mr. Wolff had posted was gone.

"As more and more people come on-line . . . they won't necessarily consider the old ways of behaving," Ms. Steele said. "Overall it tends to be a pretty civilized place, but a few people get carried away by the freedom and the power they have."