BEST OF THE WEB: Meet the conman who forced Google to cough up $500 million

The internet is full of cons, but it isn’t often that one of them forces the world’s biggest internet company to hand over half a billion dollars.

David Whitaker was released from jail in 2009 in order to act as a government co-operator. He had spent years acting as a conman, selling fake steroids and growth hormones on the internet – and he’d made a killing.

In this new piece at Wired, the publication delves into what happened to Whitaker after he was released.

But when trying to figure out how he could reduce his sentence, Whitaker skipped over just handing over some names of accomplices. Instead, he targeted Google’s most precious product – AdWords.

“In fact, he claimed, Google employees had actively helped him advertise his business, even though he had made no attempt to hide its illegal nature. It was reasonable to assume, Whitaker said, that Google was helping other rogue Internet pharmacies too.” 

AdWords is the bread and butter of Google’s advertising program, used by small businesses and sole traders to sell their wares. It is the standard for SME advertising.

What followed was bizarre. Whitaker was told to fake an identity and get in touch with Google reps. He would bait them into approving sites selling the same types of products he had previously done himself.

It was a far cry from where he had been before – spending hundreds of thousands on parties and travelling in a private jet.

“But like every other scam he had engineered, MixItForMe was unsustainable. Customers started demanding their merchandise or their money back. Whitaker tried to fend them off—flying in his private jet to conduct meetings with dissatisfied clients on the tarmac or in the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton.”

“But his fast-talking salesmanship couldn’t save him. Credit card processors refused to put payments through. Banks froze funds.”

Whitaker spotted an opportunity to take down Google as well – he claimed ad agents had helped him move ads after Google initially rejected them.

“Instead of blatantly selling illegal drugs, the rep advised, Whitaker could skirt Google’s safeguards by making his site appear to be educational in nature.”

“He needed to remove the drug photos from the homepage and get rid of the Buy Now buttons. Whitaker followed his rep’s advice and resubmitted a much tamer, more benign website.”

What follows is a long, complicated story – but in the end, Google settled with the government and paid $500 million back in 2011.

But Whitaker’s work went far beyond just a few sales reps.

“After announcing Google’s $500 million forfeiture, the US attorney for Rhode Island, Peter Neronha, told The Wall Street Journal that the culpability went far higher than the sales reps Whitaker had worked with.”

“Indeed, he said, some of the company’s most powerful executives were aware that illegal pharmacies were advertising on its site.”

A phenomenal story – one you should read.

Getting revenge through Wikipedia

Wikipedia is one of the best tools available on the internet, but it’s also precarious. After all, it can be edited by anyone – users are often reminded to take the site’s articles with a grain of salt.

And with good reason. In this Salon piece, the publication delves into the life of a Wikipedia editor named “Qworty” who over time made several edits to specific articles in order to change their impression.

In an article about the writer Barry Hannah, Qworty removed paragraphs which included quotes from the writer’s work and removed 20 links to interviews and obituaries.

“Two edits stand out. Qworty excised the phrase “and was regarded as a good mentor” from a sentence that started: “Hannah taught creative writing for 28 years at the University of Mississippi, where he was director of its M.F.A. program …” And he changed the cause of Hannah’s death from “natural causes” to “alcoholism.”

But Hannah’s obituaries stated that he had died of a heart attack and been clean and sober for years before his death, while his role as a mentor was testified to in numerous memorials. (Another editor later removed the alcoholism edit.)”

The answer to what happened is fairly trivial – Qworty was an author who had an axe to grind against the writer.

But this story goes beyond writers. Qworty has a history of these edits and clearly has an agenda – his story reveals there can be a very dark side to the world’s most-used encyclopaedia.

We almost lost the first internet page

The American radio network NPR ran a story last week in which it said the first web page was lost forever – it ended the segment asking if anyone had a copy.

Fortunately enough, someone had a copy – one Professor Paul Jones, who kept a copy of the page world wide web creator Tim Berners Lee presented at a conference in 1991.

“Jones’s file — uploaded to ibiblio.org more than two decades ago and sitting there “almost continually” ever since — wasn’t that 1990 disk drive that NPR sought, but, dating from just one year later, it is believed to be the closest copy of the original pages of the World Wide Web.”

A fun piece of internet history – be sure to check it out.

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