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Cyberspace: Last Frontier for Settling Scores?

June 15, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

In hindsight, John Henningham wishes he had never visited

The journalism professor in Brisbane, Australia, gasped when the site filled his screen in January. He was looking at his own photo. Underneath was a vulgar description of a sexual act in bold letters preceding his name. There were accusations that Henningham had committed academic fraud and had been fired from his previous job "for selling degrees for cheap sex or some other price."

The Web page was signed by a Los Angeles man named Bill White.

In the last four years, from his apartment near skid row, White, 60, has published more than 180 Web pages attacking 60 people across the globe, accusing them of being liars or frauds, corrupt and much worse.

Many of his targets have some connection with a small Roman Catholic university in Papua New Guinea where White worked briefly as a teacher before leaving in 1997 after accusing the president of being involved in a sex and blackmail scandal.

As his targets have learned, White's activities demonstrate one of the realities of the Internet: For all its omnipresence, it remains frontier territory, laden with traps for the unwary.

Web sites established to air a grievance or attack an enemy are a growing issue as more people discover they can settle old feuds and grudges in cyberspace, according to lawyers and Internet experts. Katya Gifford, program manager of CyberAngels, a Pennsylvania group that helps people deal with online abuse, said her organization receives 200 e-mails and up to 30 phone calls a week from people who say they are being harassed over the Internet.

"This is exactly the problem posed by this technology," said Gail Thackeray, an assistant attorney general in Arizona and the state's top cyber-cop.

"Whatever someone's agenda is," whether a political cause or a personal grudge, the Internet "gives him powerful tools because of the worldwide reach," she said.

"The physical stalker has to sleep sometime, but these guys never do," Thackeray added. "That's what makes them so menacing ... There are endless ways to be creative with this stuff."

In White's case, many of the people he has targeted say they have watched helplessly as he used information gleaned about them on the Internet -- a resume, a photo from a baby christening, a research paper -- and turned it against them.

Some say White' s allegations have cost them jobs and money. Others fear for their reputations. Henningham, for example, worries that prospective students looking for information about his private journalism school will instead stumble on White's sites about him.

"When I go to conferences, people ask me 'Who ... is this bloody nut case?' " said Trevor Cullen, a professor of journalism at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, who has been the subject of several of White's Web sites and who sued White for defamation.

Many of White's targets have complained to Internet firms that host his pages, only to be told that there is nothing they can do. His activities do not appear to violate cyber-stalking laws, which now exist in 45 states, including California -- most laws apply only to people who physically threaten someone, and no one has accused White of doing that.

Defamation laws are also of little assistance. One of the notions underlying libel laws is that people who can afford to distribute potentially defamatory statements widely -- by publishing a newspaper, for example -- have resources that a victim can go after in a lawsuit. In the Internet world, that assumption falls apart. Posting a Web site -- even scores of Web sites -- costs almost nothing.

A judge in Australia recently ruled that White had defamed Cullen, who concedes there is little chance he will ever collect a penny.

White has acknowledged creating these Web sites and others. In a series of e-mail exchanges and Internet postings and in an interview, he referred to himself as a "whistle-blower" trying to expose a sex scandal at the Papua New Guinea college.

"In the Old West, they called the six-shooter, 'the great equalizer,' " White recently wrote. "Well, in the 21st century and the Information Age, the Internet is the great equalizer."


Bill White's adventure began in 1996 when he left behind a long legal career in Long Beach and Orange County to go to Papua New Guinea to teach.

"I had wanted to do something like this from the time President Kennedy announced the Peace Corps," said White, who attended Stanford as an undergrad and the Hastings School of Law in San Francisco, according to State Bar of California records.

White practiced civil, tax and real estate law through the early 1990s, working mostly out of his two-story home on a cul-de-sac in suburban Fullerton, according to state bar records.

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