And the drama continues…

The new owner of http://www.stopsylviabrowne.com has converted the site yet again to be a blog detailing his “harrowing ordeal” following his purchase of the domain. I’ll provide a brief history here of what happened (from my perspective) if anyone cares to read even more about this whole thing.

I woke up on Saturday morning after some moderate Halloween partying. (Indicentally, I was the Wicked Witch of the West.) I got on the ol’ internets to do my routine of checking out the morning updates on the blogs I frequent. This includes a habitual click to Robert’s Stop Sylvia Browne site (now relocated). Imgine my surprise when I clicked on it and up came a black and red background with white text offering me “FREE Psychic Readings!” and half-assed paragraphs about Sylvia that were titled skeptically but contained unskeptical text.

My other post about discovering this betrays my reaction: Buh? Wha happen? I’ve also commented about the incident here.

I promptly emailed Skepchick to let them in on the news (although I figured other people were probably on top of it by then, I thought “well just in case”). They posted about it later in the day anyway. Then I went over to the JREF forums to see wtf was going on. And holy crap. There was an explosion.

Anger. Accusations. Pleading for some kind of sanity. The forums had it all.

I found out that Susan (Robert’s wife) had planned to purchase http://www.stopsylviabrowne.net, but the same man who’d purchased the old site had snapped that one up too. People made other suggestions which were also bought. It became apparent that either the purchaser had been watching the forums, or there was a fantabulous coincidence going on. So by Sunday people had switched to private messages and information got a bit more spotty.

Robert already owned www.stopsylvia.com so the decision was made to forget about the old site and start campaigning for link changes to the new site. At the same time, friends of Robert had allegedly (I only use this word only because it is another person’s report of what happened, not because I’m assuming they are being untruthful) contacted the buyer to ask for the site back and he reportedly offered it back for a whopping $20, 000. Considering this would be a courtesy and the new site is virtually worthless without the content, that “offer” was obviously not taken.

Meanwhile, the new owner put the site up for auction on 2 websites. Both websites have since removed the auctions. eBay has a policy that they do not maintain contact with people who report potentially fraudulent or inappropriate auctions, but someone on the forums who bid on the website got a message detailing that the site was removed from eBay because the seller had broken some rules and people had complained about misleading item details. I was one of the people who notified eBay of the listing on the grounds that the listing was inappropriate and misleading (see this post for details). I see no reason to hide it and I will get to the reason I did this later.

Sometime in the last day or so the red/black site was converted into a blog where I’ve seen some pretty disturbing and just plain ignorant comments which I will now outline (and, in a roundabout way, eventually get to the eBay thing).

Was the site obtained legally?
Yes. Robert was in the hospital and unfortunately the site renewal occurred at the same time. It was an unfortunate coincidence that, combined with some confusion in GoDaddy’s notification process and lack of access to certain email accounts, led to the repurchasing of the site. Some have said that it was irresponsible of Robert not to have it set up for automatic payment. Well, folks, he probably just paid it every year with no trouble. Unfortunately this time he happened to have a stroke. One can’t exactly plan for that. I think we should cut him some slack. Shit happens. The site’s resgistration lapsed, it was auctioned (reflecting some poor customer service on GoDaddy’s part), and the owner attempted to resell.

Did the owner do something wrong?
No…and yes. The new owner obviously did not do anything legally wrong in purchasing the site. While I consider “site poaching” (or whatever you want to call it) morally questionable, it is perfectly legal. He bought a popular site with lots of traffic and wanted to use that site for profit in whatever way he saw fit. If anyone deserves a slap on the wrist in this regard, it’s GoDaddy.

However…

The site owner took immoral (and possibly illegal — but I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer) steps following his purchase. First, he set up a new website before selling it and put the site up for auction with that content matched with statistics based on the old content. He placed the site on 2 auctions — not kosher selling practice — and he apparently made an offer to a skeptical reader of the JREF forums. He also purchased every other variant of stopsylvia.___ he could think of. Most notably after such suggestions were made on the JREF forums.

His behaviour is morally questionable at best. He was trying to sell something based on, well, lies and profit from it. And he was doing that in multiple places. That is why I reported it to eBay. What he was doing with his legal purchase was wrong and some innocent third-party buyer would have to pay for it in the end (literally and figuratively).

Should someone try to get the old site back?
Susan (and Robert through her) has made it clear that they have no interest in obtaining the old site and are prepared to move on with the new one. She has indicated that she would prefer if people did not exchange money with the man who purchased the old site. I agree. His purchase is almost worthless.

Did the buyer know Robert was ill when he bought the site?
Irrelevant. The site was for sale, he bought it. As seedy as it is to buy up websites and sell them back the original owner for more than is reasonable, it’s legal, and it would have been a very similar situation if Robert had not been in the hospital. Robert being vulnerable in the hospital is a source of frustration and anger for us, the skeptical community that enjoys his site, because of what happened but is not currently relevant. Let it go.

Now we can post comments that aren’t hand-picked by Robert! This is way better.
Not so much. Robert’s opinion is not a democracy. He has investigated these articles himself and with the help of contacts he’s made over the years. He has repeatedly asked for any proof of Sylvia’s claims and has offered to put them up on the site. People will choose to believe he is censoring regardless of whether he allows comments on his site. So if he chooses to avoid his site being spammed by “you’re not fair! my subjective experience and memory of my reading was good!”, that’s his choice. But if anyone does have a story where Sylvia was demonstrably correct in her reading, please contact him via his new site. When he is up and running again, I’m sure he’d be happy to post about it.

There is no reason yet to assume that the site’s new owner has any interest in pursuing a critical evaluation of Sylvia Browne‘s skills with commentary from the public. So far the site appears to be a place from which to whine about his treatment from the mean old skeptics. Don’t feed that nonsense. This guy is apparently a “shrewd businessman” and as such may be in a litigious mood if he thinks it’ll get him a buck. Post at your own risk and reserve full judgment until his intentions become more clear.

Should I contact the buyer with my 2 cents?
No. Unless you’re going to be polite. He has already published some disturbing letters he has allegedly received from Robert’s fans. Those letters make us look like fundamentalist jerks and are a bad reflection on Robert and his calm, rational approach to skepticism. I think it is ok to be frustrated, even pissed off, but it is not ok to email threats or death wishes to someone. It’s possible this guy didn’t know what he was getting into when he bought this particular site (people have found that he’s bought up several sites recently), so what is the point of harassing him other than making yourself look stupid. Obviously his subsequent behaviour has left a bad aftertaste in some people’s mouths, and I encourage people to comment on that in a sensible way. But nasty letters are a reflection of the writer, not the recipient (as PZ Meyer’s many hate letters following the great cracker scandal have demonstrated). Tone it down.

What’s the problem here?
At this point, “the problem” is with Google mostly. Part of the reason Robert’s old website was so valuable is that it was ranked number 2 in a Google search for “Sylvia Browne“. The new site does not yet have that power and it will take time to build back up. The old site has already slipped in the rankings, but number 3 out of some 675, 000 (on my search, anyway) is still pretty good and this guy will get some traffic out of that (especially as the text under the site on the Google search page still has Robert’s description). This is where people should be focusing their energy (if any). Forget the nasty letters, forget the old site. Just optimally update those links!

_______________________
So that’s my take. After my initial shock at the site being gone, once the problem was fixed and there was a new site I was pretty much over it until I found out that the buyer was doing some seedy auctioning. The problem is solved, so I don’t see much point in being mad about it anymore. Just please, if anyone is hearing about this for the first time here and you have links to Robert’s old site, please update them all (I know it’s annoying, but it’s important) to point to the new site www.stopsylvia.com. If you find out-of-date links elsewhere, let the webmaster know. And most importantly, please please don’t do anything that’s going to cause Robert and Susan any more grief…they’re going through enough right now.

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2 responses to “And the drama continues…

  1. Hey Kim, I hadn’t been keeping up with the drama regarding this, but now that I read your post, I did actually email this guy when I first heard about him taking over the old site. I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he may not have known about Robert’s illness, and I wasn’t rude, but I did let him know there were people who were upset by his purchasing of the site. His response? He told me his company buys domains without knowledge if the owner is ill, dead, or well, and then said he gots tons of “insulting emails”, and then wrote that after all this “stupidity” he is not willing to give the site back anymore, and that he was willing to give the site back to Susan but got no cooperation. He said he bought the site on godaddy for 400. Hmmm… Sounds like a wonderful dude, replying with such indignation to my email, when he is acting so inappropriately himself.

  2. Ugh. He could have not responded to you at all. He could have responded and said “thanks, I’m aware”. He could have done a lot of things that weren’t aggravating the situation further and blaming everyone else for this situation but himself.

    If this whole situation demonstrates one thing for sure, it’s that poaching websites and participating in some questionable resale strategies are asshole moves that can land you in some deep shit. I hope at least he learned that lesson.

    This could have easily happened with “Grandma’s Website for Starving Kittens” with a fan base of computer-literate octogenarians. It’s not so much that we’re big mean skeptics, it’s that we’re readers of something that was screwed over and we took action — albeit some did not take the best action.

    But being the “shrewd” businessman that he is I’d think he’d be able to let that stuff roll off his back. His responses so far have been extremely emotional. Especially all that “poor me, I’m a famous chess player” non sequitur victimization stuff. That was just weird.

    He could just move on (as Robert’s readers have moved onto the new site anyway), but instead he’s got a blog to whine on about how everyone was mean to him and he’s taking his marbles and going home. If he can’t handle some hate mail from strangers on the internet, how does he react to real life conflict? I’m thinking fetal position while crying in the shower.

    I don’t mean to be rude, really (although I’m not doing a good job), but this guy is just plain clueless. He did everything so badly that it’s almost funny.