A United States senator once said it, so it must be true: The Internet isn't a dump truck, it's a series of tubes. And many a reputation has gone swirling down those tubes, thanks to the Net's ability to expose scoundrels, scalawags, liars, cheats, and fools--and then broadcast the scandal to a billion glowing screens.
The Net's biggest scandals are nothing if not democratic, touching everyone from the most ordinary individuals to the highest office in the land. Not everyone deserved the notoriety. Some were hapless victims of privacy breaches; others were exposed by hackers or misguided crusaders. But in almost every case, somebody ended up getting fired, sued, or mortally embarrassed.
Here then, in descending order, are our picks for the 10 all-time biggest scandals on the Internet.
10. Don't Ask, Don't Tell--And Don't Tell AOL
Senior Chief Petty Officer Timothy R. McVeigh figured there was no harm in listing his marital status as "gay" on his AOL profile. Even though he had not divulged his sexual preference to the military, McVeigh (no relation to the Oklahoma City bomber) chose not to disclose his full name or other identifying information to AOL. But his privacy--and his 17-year career in the Navy--were tossed overboard when an AOL employee divulged his full identity to a naval investigator in the fall of 1997.
When the Navy accused the 17-year veteran of violating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and tried to discharge him, McVeigh sued. After a judge ruled in his favor, McVeigh was allowed to retire as a master chief petty officer, the rank he would have attained had AOL not spilled the beans in the first place.
9. The Rootkit of All Evil
Halloween 2005 was a scary night for Sony BMG Music, but not for the usual reasons. That day Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich posted a curious entry on his blog. While scanning his hard drive that day, Russinovich had discovered a rootkit--a tool often used by hackers to mask the presence of malware--and had traced it back to Get Right With the Man, a Sony BMG Music CD.
The scandal snowballed, as other bloggers weighed in and the mainstream media picked up the story. At first Sony denied that its copy-protection software had turned half a million PCs into hacker's toys. It then issued "fixes" that didn't work, and finally it relented to public pressure and offered to help users uninstall the kit and replace their CDs. By then, the company's reputation was as damaged as its customers' hard drives.
8. Sex-Video Scandal #387 in a Series
Stop us if you've seen this one before. Sexy starlet falls madly in love with Hollywood hunk. Sexy starlet and Hollywood hunk fall madly out of love three months later. Soon thereafter a video of the pair making the beast with two backs appears on the Net, though both parties deny all knowledge of it. (What, weren't they there?) It may be a jilted lover's revenge or just a cheap publicity stunt, but it's a little more exposure than any of us really needed. Memo to Pamela and Tommy Lee, Paris and Rick, Colin Farrell and Nicole, and all other would-be video exhibitionists: When you see somebody pointing a camera at you--and you're not on a movie set--put your clothes back on. It's generally not a good career move (though it's still a step up from House of Wax).