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‘Wikipedia killer’ pilfers blogosphere, taunts bloggers

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Ulitzer bills itself as a new-age website that will somehow replace the cult of Wikipedia. And judging from the online farce that followed the site’s Friday beta launch, it’s off to a good start.

Floated by Sys-Con — a New Jersey-based company that runs several tech publications and conferences, including this week’s Cloud Computing Expo — Ulitzer is described as “a media website with… more than 1 million original stories, contributed by more than 6,000 authors.” But it seems that many of these authors are contributing without agreeing to contribute. And if they complain that their identities have been co-opted without their consent, Sys-Con has been known to publish its own stories calling them names.

Blogger/Developer Aral Balkan had never heard of Ulitzer until his name turned up in a press release listing dozens of its contributing authors. “Yesterday, I got a Google Alert in my inbox informing me, based on a post that is being spammed into Google, that I was an author on something called Ulitzer,” Balkan wrote on his personal blog on Saturday. “The only problem was, I had no clue what Ulitzer was and I sure as hell hadn’t signed up as one of their authors.”

The site — which looks an awful lot like ZDNet — had already created a subdomain using his name: aralbalkan.ulitzer.com.

The press release boasts that Ulitzer will pay its authors 200 per cent of its ad revenue from Google AdSense. But Balkan knows a sketchy business proposition when he sees one. He promptly phoned the Sys-Con to complain about his inclusion, and they immediately removed him from the site.

But after he complained about the new operation via Twitter, he received a phone call from Sys-Con CEO Fuat Kircaali. Like Balkan, Kircaali speaks Turkish, but the conversation began in English. At one point, Balkan says, when he tried to explain how upset he was about the operation, Kircaali switched languages and told him to — roughly translated — “stop your whoring and talk to me in Turkish.”

Balkan hung up. And he soon described his experience on his (macro-)blog. Within hours, Sys-Con published two articles that mention Balkan by name. One, entitled “Turkish Fags Living in London,” called him a “homosexual son of a bitch.” The other, entitled “Turkish Web Designer Declares Death on Twitter,” claimed that Balkan was “said to be organizing an underground group to kill or bodily harm the company representatives,” comparing him with the man who shot Pope John Paul II.

And it appears that Sys-Con responded in much the same way to other critics, including a well-known Adobe developer named Ted Patrick. After Patrick Tweeted that Sys-Con deserved to die, the company published an article that accused him of blogging under the influence.

“They [Sys-Con] have questionable unethical practices when it comes to dealing with authors and content,” Aral Balkan tells us. “And if anyone calls them out on it, or criticizes what their doing, they attack them with so-called articles on their site.”

SysCon’s Jeremy Geelan responded to our initial requests for comment on the matter, but said he didn’t have time to talk on the phone as he’s currently serving as conference chair of the company’s Cloud Computing Expo. He offered to answer our questions over email, but has yet to do so.

Balkan questions whether Ulizer’s blog-aggregation techniques run afoul of the law. But this sort of web-scraping goes on all the time — with little consequence. “Default copyright law apparently protects things like Google search, which captures content automatically from third-parties and puts it into a database and then republishes it. And a blog aggregator and a search engine are pretty similar,” Santa Clara University law professor and tech law blogger Eric Goldman tells us.

Following Sys-Con’s recent posts about him, Balkan also wonders whether the company is now guilty of libel, saying he will soon be speaking to a lawyer. But Goldman paints this as a borderline claim as well. “There’s plenty of case law where calling someone a homosexual is defamatory, but I’d like to think we’ve moved on from that,” he explains. “‘Said to be organizing an underground group to kill or bodily harm the company representatives’? If that’s untrue, that could be problematic.”

But there’s no denying the entertainment value of this Wikipedia-esque online farce. Joe Rinehart — another developer included roped into Ulitzer against his will — is now using the arrangement to give Sys-Con a taste of its own medicine.

After publishing a story entitled “Open Content Publication Is A Two-Edged Sword: Whoring, drinking, and shooting the Pope” via RSS, it promptly turned up on Sys-Con’s new website. “Ulitzer claims more than 1,000,000 articles contributed by 6,000 authors. That’s not quite a fair statement, as most of the content and articles are simply re-hashes of publicly available RSS feeds,” the story begins… ®

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