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Monday, April 21, 2014

Legal Schnauzer Is Not The Only U.S. Blog To Receive Unwanted Attention From Content Thieves In India

Legal Schnauzer is not the only blog to have its content lifted by a blogger from India who goes by the name "Poonam Verma." As happened in our case, part of the scheme is to add the letter "a" to the end of a key word in the URL.

The discovery came from Michael Donahue, an information-technology professional we asked to look at legalschnauzera.blogspot.come, the India-based site that copied our work. Donahue not only found the source of our problems, he also found at least one other U.S. blogger who had been targeted.

That was the Good Point Ideas Blog, which can be found at retroworks.blogspot.com. Robin Ingenthron, of Middlebury, Vermont, writes the blog and owns a company called American Retroworks Inc. The blog and the company focus on recycling, electronic exports, and fair trade.

On January 9, 2014, Ingenthron wrote a post about a blog from India that was lifting his content, and he traced it to someone using the name "Poonam Verma." In this case, the URL was changed to retroworksa.blogspot.com and the title became "Damageethical  Blog."

From Ingenthron's post on the discovery:

How's this for a doppleganger? Damageethical Blog, "by Poonam Verma". He may be from India, or from Sri Lanka, I see 22 pages accessed from Sri Lanka this morning.
It's registered as retroworksa.blogspot.com (notice the letter "a" affixed to retroworks). And it's a complete reposting of my work in this blog.
Except every post has a crap link advertisement in front. I haven't found any malware.
So... since I'm a mission oriented dude, do I see this as "getting the word out?" Or should I be outraged at the paid ads for water removal, sewage, etc. he's selling? It's like running into a cyber-Leonard Zelig from India.

That's exactly what happened with Legal Schnauzer. An "a" was added to our URL, with content lifted and an ad linked to each post.

Our thanks to Michael Donahue for helping us learn that we aren't the only victims of this scam.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Here Is An Inside Look At The "Web Scraping" That Led To Major Content Theft at Legal Schnauzer

A blog based in India stole content from Legal Schnauzer by using a technique called "Web scraping," an information-technology professional states. What is the key tip-off? It's the rogue blog's use of advertising, our IT source states.

The blog, LegalSchnauzera.blogspot.com, uses an almost identical title and Web address as this blog--with the only difference being the addition of the letter "a" after schnauzer. Republican political figure Rob Riley cited LegalSchnauzera in court documents and claimed the site might signal that I had not been fully purged of contempt after my wife, Carol, removed certain items from sites under our control, leading to my release from jail.

Our IT source, however, says Legal Schnauzer has been the victim of content theft from the India-based knockoff. We have sent a cease-and-desist letter to the registered owners of the site, who are shown from advertising documents as:

Poonam Verma and Pushpender Kumar
Verdhaman Hall/Verdhaman Complex
Delhi, DL 110091
+0.01122777131
uraniclint73@gmail.com

(Note: The spelling most often found on the Web is Vardhman Hall or Vardhman Complex.)

Our source says scraping clearly was present at the site:

Typically the term "Web Scraping" is used to describe the act of taking content from a third party website (such as your blog) and displaying it on (another) website. Web scraping is not always malicious. For example many popular travel websites utilize web scraping. When you search for a flight the travel website reaches out to third party websites such as Southwest, Delta and American Airlines. Only the relevant information from the third party website is displayed to the user. . .

As it relates to "Legalschnauzera.blogspot.com" it is clear that the website is blog scraping. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog_scraping) All links redirect the user to advertisements. The user probably used your RSS feed to automate the process and capitalize on advertising revenue. The creator of this website either used a fictitious name or did not have any concerns about revealing their identity. The owner of the blog is listed as Poonam Verma. I found two separate forms of advertising on this website. The first one was Google Adsense. The second one was more of a custom solution in which the links direct the user to other websites owned by Verma.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rogue Blog From India Used "Web Scraping" To Grab Heaping Helpings Of Legal Schnauzer Content

A Web site that Alabama political figure Rob Riley cited recently in court papers is registered to owners in India, an information-technology professional tells Legal Schnauzer. The IT source also states that it appears Legal Schnauzer has been the victim of a common form of content theft called "Web scraping."

Riley states in documents that he had discovered a Web site called LegalSchnauzera.blogspot.com, which has an identical title and address to my blog, except for the "a" added to the end of the word schnauzer. Riley says the "LegalSchnauzera" site still was running certain articles that my wife, Carol, had removed from Legal Schnauzer to comply with a court order and gain my release after five months in jail on civil-contempt charges. Riley asserts that the presence of the "LegalSchnauzera" articles raises questions about whether I was fully purged of contempt, and he has asked for a hearing or a show-cause finding on the issue.

As we stated in a post yesterday, neither Carol nor I had any knowledge of, or connections to, "LegalSchnauzera"--and she had, in fact, removed all of the court-ordered items under our control. Now we know that the rogue site has roots in India and apparently has been making unauthorized use of Legal Schnauzer content--in heaping portions.

Based on a review of advertising data, our IT source was able to trace "LegalSchnauzera" to the following registered owners:

Poonam Verma and Pushpender Kumar
Verdhaman Hall/Verdhaman Complex
Delhi, DL 110091
+0.01122777131
uraniclint73@gmail.com

We already have sent a cease-and-desist letter to the listed e-mail address. Verma's name appears on "LegalSchnauzera," but it was unclear if that was a real name. Our IT source says advertising data refers to other sites where Verma is the registered owner.

The rogue site apparently has not been updated since September 2013, but it includes Legal Schnauzer posts from the early days of our site.

We have filed a response to the Riley document and outlined our findings regarding the origins of "LegalSchnauzera." 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Rob Riley Discovers Rogue Web Site and Cites It To Raise Questions About My Release From Jail

Alabama political figure Rob Riley has asked a judge to determine if I had any involvement with a Web site running articles that had been removed from Legal Schnauzer in order to purge a contempt finding and gain my release from jail.

The Web site in question is legalschnauzera.blogspot.com, with the addition of an "a" being the only difference between it and the title and address of my blog. "LegalSchnauzera" is filled with pop-up ads and pretty clearly appears to be a rogue Web site of some sort.

Riley is asking Judge Claud Neilson for a hearing--or to require my wife, Carol, and me to show cause concerning any involvement with "LegalSchnauzera." Carol removed certain items from Legal Schnauzer, plus my YouTube and Twitter accounts, in order to purge a contempt finding and gain my release after five months in the Shelby County Jail.

The answer to the primary question at hand is simple--neither Carol nor I have ever had any involvement with "LegalSchnauzera" or any Web site like it. We only learned of it upon receiving Riley's court documents on Saturday. In his March 26 release finding, Neilson noted Carol's "good faith efforts" to remove certain items from sites that were under our control. We have continued to act in good faith, but now a rogue blog of unknown origins has muddied the waters.

So where did "LegalSchnauzera" come from, and who is behind it? We don't know the answer to that question, but we certainly would like to find out.

I've never claimed to be an expert on abuse issues in the blogosphere, but some quick research shows that content theft has become a mounting problem. It's often called "scraping" or "splogging," and apparently can be easy to accomplish. Here is how one article on the Web describes the process:

Online content theft is, unfortunately, a common incident these days. As soon as a site becomes popular, it’s only a matter of time before someone reproduces it and tries to make a buck from it. One simply needs access to a RSS feed and an Google AdSense account in order to monetize from someone else’s work, and sadly, this happens all too often.

A quick visit to "LegalSchnauzera" shows that it is awash in ads. If you click on an article, it tends to call up an ad. In some cases, ads are superimposed so that an article cannot be read. It appears that the articles are there only as a vehicle to attract ad revenue.

Why did someone choose my articles as such a vehicle? I have no idea, but after spending five months in jail, this seems like another gross violation of my fundamental rights as a citizen. In terms of taste, I don't want anyone thinking I might be involved with a site like "LegalSchnauzera." More importantly, Carol and I have dealt with the court in an upfront and honest way throughout--and we will continue to do so; we aren't into playing shell games via a Web site that appears to be anything but upfront and honest.

Reporter Kent Faulk picked up on the story at al.com, and I told him that it felt like my site had been "hijacked." The rogue site appears to have articles on more than 100 subjects we've covered at Legal Schnauzer, with a small portion of them about Rob Riley. Here is part of the al.com article:

In an email Saturday evening responding to questions from AL.com, Shuler stated he had received a copy of the filings by Rob Riley's attorneys Saturday afternoon and stated he was "baffled" and denied having anything to do with the other website.

"I've never heard of legalschnauzera.blogspot.com, and I have no involvement with it," Shuler wrote in the email. "I took my first glance at it a few minutes ago, and it appears that someone has taken many of my posts and adopted them as their own. The author claims to be someone named Poonam Verma, and I have no idea who that is--or if it is even a real person.

"I'm sure Mr. Riley is upset to discover this Web site, and so am I. It looks as if my site has been hijacked," Shuler wrote. "I've never dealt with this sort of problem before, so I'm not an expert on it, but I think the key thing is to contact the hosting site and let them know that someone is using their service in a fraudulent way. I'm looking into doing that right now.

"I will be glad to help Rob Riley and his associates in any way that I can to straighten this out," Shuler wrote. "I'm concerned that this has happened, and I hope I can help get to the bottom of it."

I plan to file a formal response with the court shortly.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Incarceration In Legal Schnauzer Case Is An "Extremely Dangerous" Development For Free Press

Roger and Carol Shuler have an
 emotional reunion. 
My five-month incarceration from the fallout of a defamation lawsuit is an "extremely dangerous" development, the head of a leading journalism organization says in a new story at Al Jazeera America.

Reporter Wilson Dizard wrote the story, titled "Case of Jailed Blogger Raises First Amendment Concerns."

Writes Dizard:

The merits of Shuler’s blog aside, journalist and civil liberties groups tend to agree that his incarceration raises flags in terms of First Amendment rights.
David Cullier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, described the development as “extremely dangerous.”
“If he did wrong, then there are recourses in civil court, but the government should not throw people in jail for expressing themselves,” he said.

Some experts told Al Jazeera that I could have handled the case in a more effective manner. But I point out that I was arrested before even having an opportunity to answer the lawsuit or receive an order on fundamental motions regarding proper service and jurisdiction:

Shuler said he would have challenged the injunction using the First Amendment if he’d had the opportunity.
“I was never served with the restraining order. I've never seen it to this day. I certainly would have appealed the injunction on First Amendment grounds if I had not been arrested before I had the chance,” he said.
I should note that I was open to hiring an attorney, but my arrest came so quickly that it short-circuited most any opportunities to defend myself.

Could this case have broader implications for general communications on the Web? It could if the law is applied to others as it has been applied to me--but hopefully, it won't come to that. A 2013/14 Virginia case styled Dietz v. Perez, involved a preliminary injunction very much like the one in my case. Fortunately, there was no effort to arrest Jane Perez, who had posted negative reviews at several Web forums about a contractor who had done repair work on her townhouse.

One expert called my incarceration an "aberration."

Shuler suggested that his case should concern all those who write on the Web, in whatever form.
“What if people could be jailed because of comments they make on Facebook or Twitter or any other Web forum? That could happen if the law were applied the way it has been in my case,” he said.
Others warn against widening the implications of this one case. Kurt Opsahl, a senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights advocacy group, said that Shuler’s jailing was an “an aberration in the justice system that should not become a trend.”
“The Supreme Court has recognized that the full protections of the First Amendment apply online, and most courts have appropriately balanced the rights in online cases. Of course, as the Shuler case illustrates, there are some outliers,” he said.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Inmates Acted With Disbelief When Told Journalist Was In Jail For Writing A Blog

"Why are you here?" tends to be the most common question that inmates ask each other. Inmates in the Shelby County Jail usually reacted with disbelief when I told them I was in jail for writing a blog.

That's one of several new insights from "The Accidental First Amendment Martyr," an article by Versha Sharma at Vocativ.com. Sharma points out that issues in my case go well beyond the press; they have implications for anyone who might write critically about an individual or entity on the Web--at Facebook or Twitter, for example.

Here is an excerpt from the question-and-answer format:

How did other inmates respond when you said you were in for blogging?
People looked at me like I was crazy. Most Americans have a sense of what the First Amendment means, and I can’t tell you how many times people would say, “That’s wrong.” I never should have been in jail at all under the law. There’s just no provision for preliminary injunction in a defamation case. It runs contrary to First Amendment law that goes back to the 1800s.

As for the broader implications of the prior-restraint issues in my case . . .

Why do you think your case is important?
This is not just about journalists. It’s about anybody going on the Internet. There was a case similar to mine, Dietz v. Perez. Jane Perez had hired a contractor to work on her town home. She went on Angie’s List and Yelp and wrote a critical review and wound up getting sued. The contractor sought a permanent injunction [to get those posts removed], exactly like in my case, and the trial judge granted it. She got help from a group called Public Citizens out of D.C., and they got that injunction overturned.

What about jail food? We touched on that, too.

What was life like in jail?
Jail’s not supposed to be pleasant, and I can confirm that it isn’t. There were times I thought I wasn’t going to live through it. The inmates in general were nice to me, but it’s a volatile place where violence happens, and I was concerned on a regular basis about something breaking out. I lost probably close to 20 pounds. The Shelby County Jail—some of the meals are fine, but you just don’t get as much as you normally would. I’m tremendously grateful to be back home with my wife, Carol, and our two kitty cats and trying to get life back to normal again.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Journalist Found Himself With Hands Tied During Five-Month Incarceration In Defamation Case

I was largely cut off from communication with the outside world, with little opportunity to defend myself, during a five-month incarceration over a defamation lawsuit. Those are among the key points in a new article from Think Progress reporter Nicole Flatow.

The article describes the no-win situation I encountered: I was faced with removing articles in an order that represented a clear prior restraint, conflicting with more than 200 years of First Amendment law; but if I was going to comply with the court order, I had no way of doing it. From the Think Progress piece:

Shuler was initially resistant to the order. But even when he wanted to comply, he didn’t know how.
“At my Nov. 14 hearing, the only hearing I had in the case, the court gave me no direction on how I could purge myself of contempt,” Shuler told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “I noted that I had no computer or Web access to take down the posts, even though I knew it was unlawful to be forced into taking them down. The court’s response was more or less that I had to resolve that problem myself. With that kind of response from the court I felt caught between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place.’”
Shuler said if he was lucky, he got to make a 15-minute call three or four times a week. “That’s the only communication I had with anybody,” said.

Getting legal assistance also was difficult. Writes Flatow:

And getting a lawyer wasn’t easy. While defendants in criminal cases who cannot afford a lawyer have a right to court-appointed counsel, the same is not true in civil contempt cases. Shuler called himself middle class, and said he would “really need either pro bono or contingency type of legal representation and I think it’s a possibility but it’s very slow in trying to make it happen.”
Shuler was supported by legal briefs in his case from the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. But neither organization was representing him directly, and only he had the power to appeal his own case. Shuler didn’t appeal. He said he spent his time in jail fearing for his life, and figuring out how he could comply with a sweeping contempt order and get out of jail. As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explained in an October letter, the order included a vague mandate to take down all content related to the alleged affair, without ever deeming which content was actually defamatory.

I did wind up with an education about the nature of our "correctional" system, which doesn't seem to address many of the problems that put inmates behind  bars:

Shuler was perhaps the most prominent inmate in Shelby County jail these last few months, but he says he wasn’t the only one who shouldn’t have been there. Most of the people he met were there for drug and alcohol problems, he said, or for mental health issues the jail didn’t appear suited to handle.
“Jail is I guess by definition a holding facility for people a lot of whom have not yet been found guilty of anything,” he said. (Jails typically hold individuals who have been charged but not yet convicted, or those who receive short sentences, typically less than a year). “I go to bed at night and a lot of times I think there are guys still in there … I get the feeling we’re in a culture right now, it’s sort of like arrest first, and ask questions later.”

Monday, April 7, 2014

New York Times Falsely Claims That Legal Schnauzer Blog Has Generated "Many Defamation Lawsuits"

The New York Times building
A photo caption in a New York Times article about my incarceration states that the Legal Schnauzer blog has "prompted many defamation lawsuits." The statement is false and comes on top of other inaccuracies that we have previously noted in the story.

The January 12 article, by reporter Campbell Robertson, inaccurately states that I was "unwilling to hire a lawyer" and that I planned to "bring federal criminal charges" against the judge in the defamation case that led to my incarceration.

But the newspaper stepped way out of bounds by hinting on multiple occasions that I have long been the target of defamation lawsuits. The record, however, shows that I had been a professional journalist for 35 years without ever being sued for defamation--until two Republican political figures filed similar lawsuits within roughly one month of each other in August/September 2013.

In short, my experience as the target of defamation lawsuits involves two cases in the span of roughly one month during a 35-year career. That constitutes "many defamation lawsuits"?

Robertson writes as follows in the body of the story:

Mr. Shuler is no stranger to defamation suits, as one might surmise from reading his blog.

That's off the mark, but it's fairly general in nature. The newspaper, however, goes way off track with its photo caption. (Note: Reporters usually do not write photo captions; that duty tends to fall to someone on a newspaper's copy desk.) I only became aware of the caption after being able to check the Web following my release from jail on March 26. Here is how the caption reads:

Posts on Roger Shuler’s blog, Legal Schnauzer, have prompted many defamation suits. His refusal to cooperate in one recent case has led to his being jailed since October and has drawn international attention.

Court records are public records that anyone can check, and they show that Legal Schnauzer has not prompted "many defamation lawsuits." (The part about my "refusal to cooperate" isn't true either. When faced with the lawsuit in question, I filed a motion to quash service after being handed court papers during an unconstitutional traffic stop. That was the first key issue to raise, but I was arrested before I received an order on that issue--or before I was able to raise any other defenses. It's hard, of course, to "cooperate" with the process when you are thrown in jail without access to a computer or even with a real pen to use.)

Natasha Lennard, of Salon, raised questions about inaccuracies in the Times story in an article dated January 14, 2014. From the Salon article:

A New York Times report on Shuler may have underplayed some chilling factors relating to the blogger’s situation. The Times story gave the strong impression that Shuler has regularly engaged in salacious and defamatory writing about Alabama lawmakers and policymakers. Carol Shuler, Roger’s wife, spoke to Salon and claimed this was an erroneous characterization. She noted that her husband had never been sued for defamation, until two suits were filed against him at the same time.

We now know that the Times, in its photo caption, did more than give a strong impression that I had regularly engaged in writing that sparked defamation lawsuits; the newspaper made a flat-out statement to that effect.

The public record shows that the assertion is untrue.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Journalist Felt Caught Between "Rock And Hard Place" During Five-Month Struggle For Freedom?

Why did it take five months for me to be released from jail? I don't know of a simple answer to that question, but a new report from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) shines light on that and other issues.

Reporter Michael Rooney wrote the article, titled "Blogger Roger Shuler released after five months in jail." Rooney addresses the challenges I faced in dealing with a court order that, according to commenters from both the left and right, ran contrary to long-established First Amendment law.

One of the fundamentals of civil contempt law in Alabama is that the subject must be capable of complying with the order. Here is how one article puts it:

Civil contempt refers to a willful, continuing failure or refusal of a person to comply with a court’s order, ruling, or command, including a subpoena. In order for there to be a civil contempt the ruling, order, or command must still be capable of being complied with before Alabama contempt charges will be justified.

In jail, with no access to a computer or the Web, I was not physically capable of complying with the court's order. That's why so much of the burden wound up falling on my wife, Carol. From the RCFP article:
Shuler said he did not take down the materials sooner because he did not have adequate information or resources to purge the contempt.

“At my Nov. 14 hearing, the only hearing I had in the case, the court gave me no direction on how I could purge myself of contempt," Shuler said. "I noted that I had no computer or Web access to take down the posts, even though I knew it was unlawful to be forced into taking them down. The court's response was more or less that I had to resolve that problem myself. With that kind of response from the court I felt caught between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place.’”

Shuler also explained that “I also was limited by that fact that Carol and I had no experience dealing with issues related to jail and arrest."

"Neither of us ever had been close to being incarcerated before," he said. "We simply did the best we could with an extremely stressful, unfair situation.”

As Rooney notes, the RCFP was one of several organizations that issued briefs saying the take-down order was inappropriate from the outset:

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press . . . argued that the process by which the court issued the take-down order was problematic.
"It appears that there was no full adjudication on the merits or default judgment ever issued against the Shulers on the defamation claim," the letter states. "As such, the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunctions amount to unconstitutional prior restraints."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

New al.com Post Focuses On My Release And Provides An Opportunity For Comment About Life Behind Bars

Judge Claud Neilson
Details about my release from the Shelby County Jail are available in a new article at al.com. Reporter Kent Faulk gave me an opportunity to comment about the whole experience, and I hope that provides new insight about my time behind bars.

The article is titled Legal Schnauzer blogger freed from jail after 5 months; had been held on contempt charge and focuses on steps that led to my release last Wednesday.

In the initial version of his report, Faulk noted that he had sought comment from me but had not received a reply. I contacted Faulk and told him that the e-mail had not appeared in my inbox, but I would be glad to comment or answer questions. His query finally reached me, and here is how it read:

I see from your blog that your wife removed some things from your blog etc. That satisfied the judge? Do you feel you had support from different groups during your incarceration? How so?

Here is my response:
"I'm very thankful to be out of jail. It was an extremely difficult experience, physically and mentally.
"I had hoped to be released much sooner than this, with the help of legal counsel that could have argued that the preliminary injunction in my case was improper under roughly 200 years of American law. It's a classic prior restraint, the kind that long has been forbidden under the First Amendment. Outside legal counsel was slow in developing, and I couldn't argue the case for myself from inside the jail, so over the course of several weeks my wife figured out how to remove certain items as ordered by the court and gained my release. I see her as a hero in this, operating under very stressful conditions.
"I guess you could say it was a survival move. While inmates and guards generally treated me well, jail is a rough place. I witnessed an inmate suicide and regularly witnessed fights or intense verbal altercations that threatened to become dangerous. I needed to get out, especially when you consider this was a civil matter that involved no criminal allegations.
"I regret that it took five months to make this happen, but we had very little direction from the court on how to make it happen. And inmates in general have limited opportunities to communicate with the outside world. I'm not sure the general public understands just how isolating the jail experience can be. I certainly didn't realize it until I experienced it.
"As for support from different groups, I know the ACLU and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) filed briefs on my behalf--and I greatly appreciate that. I know a lot of people from all walks of life were in touch with Carol, offering support in different ways. I think my case was so extraordinary--I was the only jailed journalist in the Western Hemisphere for 2013--I'm not sure a lot of people knew exactly how to respond to it. It's just not the kind of thing you see, or should see, in the United States. Plus, the case file was sealed for a number of months, and that helped keep people in the dark.
"I do know that Carol and I have been in a lot of thoughts and prayers, and that means more to us than I can say."

In the body of  his report, Faulk notes the major role my wife, Carol, played in bridging the gap between the court and her inmate husband. From Faulk's report:

Roger Shuler, who writes the blog Legal Schnauzer, was released from the Shelby County Jail last Wednesday afternoon based on an order from Circuit Court Judge Claud D. Neilson.
In his order, Neilson stated that Shuler's wife, Carol Shuler, "has removed most of the subject matter of the injunction from the Legal Schnauzer blog, from Shuler's You Tube account, and from Shuler's Twitter account."
"The court is informed that the headlines about the subject matter of the injunction are still on the internet if you utilize Google or Yahoo. The defendant Roger Shuler, also has another blog/website that contains the material that was determined to be defamatory and made the subject of the permanent injunction," the judge wrote.
"Because of the good faith efforts made to remove the material by Carol Shuler, the court has determined that the defendant, Roger Shuler, may be released from custody pending a review by the court of all actions taken to remove the defamatory items and if the defendants have purged themselves of contempt," Neilson wrote.

But Neilson also cautioned that his final order in the case on Nov. 14, 2013 is a permanent injunction - ordering Shuler to take the comments down - and Shuler is subject to its terms in the future.