In December, a fake news release was sent out by a group claiming to be Koch Industries, the oil processing company owned by Charles D.G. Koch ’57 and David H. Koch ’62, the Republican donors, arts benefactors and global warming skeptics.
Under the headline “Koch Industries Announces New Environmental Commitments,” the fake release said that after “a recent internal and thorough company review,” the company would be “restructuring its support of climate change research and advocacy initiatives.”
Months later, the company, based in Wichita, Kan., is still pursuing the identities of the members of the group that claimed credit for the prank, Youth for Climate Truth. In a lawsuit, it is demanding damages including “costs associated with spending time and money to respond to inquiries about the fake release,” as well as “investigative and legal expenses” in pursuing the tricksters.
A first step for Koch was to go to court in Utah to compel an Internet service provider to provide information on who set up the website cited in the release, and thus determine who could be sued. (The group’s lawyer, Deepak Gupta of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, is so confident that its actions are protected by the Constitution that he contends that lifting anonymity must be the purpose of the lawsuit.)
The episode goes to the heart of the one of paradoxes of the digital age. On the Internet, parody and mockery have never been easier to pull off. “We assumed they would be upset about it,” said one of the anonymous pranksters in a telephone interview arranged by Gupta. “But we had no guess that they would go to the level of a lawsuit. It’s ridiculous and overblown. What we did is completely acceptable, as parody.”
As spoofs go, the fake Koch news release wasn’t particularly spoofy. My colleague Tom Zeller Jr., who covers climate change, was among the reporters who immediately sussed out the release’s bogusness, noting that its content was quite implausible, that the affiliated website had only recently been registered and that its address was the clunky koch-inc.com.
But parody is a well-protected form of free speech, so in this case, the Koch company is resorting to an indirect legal theory in order to get private information from the Internet service provider.
In a brief explanation of the Utah lawsuit on its website, the company wrote: “We are not seeking in any way to silence our critics. This lawsuit was filed because the integrity of our computer systems and our valuable intellectual property was compromised and used without permission, in violation of the terms of service and federal law.”
Koch did not respond to questions seeking elaboration on its posted statement.
Koch’s lawsuit, then, is based on allegations of hacking, trademark abuse and so-called cybersquatting. Those give the company the rationale for going after private information.
“It’s the tail wagging the dog,” Gupta said of using such accusations “to unmask your critics.”