October 13, 2011

#BrianDunning: No wonder he's such a libertarian

 UPDATE, Oct. 29, 2011: Welcome, Skeptic's Guide to the Universe readers. I don't have a "vendetta" against Skepticblog, just against ideology masquerading as skepticism. Brian Dunning and Michael Shermer both do it regularly with their libertarianism. (So does non-Skepticblog Skeptic Penn Jillette, the magician.) Shermer also leaves himself "open" to critical purview otherwise, for having known racialists on his magazine's masthead.

UPDATE 2, Dec. 31, 2011: Apparently, I've gotten too far under Dunning's skin; I've been blocked from posting at Skepticblog.

Why pointing these things out should be considered a possible "problem," I don't know.

And, if you'll click either the skepticism or pseudoskepticism tags, you'll note that I take a skeptical eye at skeptics outside the magazine, like the above-named Penn and others who are Gnu Atheist evangelists (P.Z. Myers is a favorite target), or even occasionally a Chris Mooney type.

Conduct that leads to an FBI criminal fraud investigation and criminal indictment is a "good" reason indeed to be a libertarian. But, it rightfully draws skepticism about just how "good" of a skeptic a self-proclaimed skeptic, and peer-accepted skeptical leader, is.

Dunning, the host of the Skeptoid podcast on skeptical issues as well as a blogger on Skepticblog, has had his hands slapped before by me and other skeptics for letting libertarian political beliefs bend his skepticism at times.

UPDATE, Oct. 6, 2011: Dunning is now (in a lawyer-vetted blog post) making this hilarious claim:
What’s written on my Wikipedia page is factually true, through grossly misleading.
So's your own post. The top link notes that the charges are against Kessler's Flying Circus, not Skeptoid Media. Nice try, but a #fail.

He then claims that "cookie stuffing" is just the act of dropping third-party cookies on someone's browser. Well, per this link, that's not what the suit/charges are about (what cookie stuffing actually is will be explained below that):
But within this scandal can be found some very useful information.  The ebay lawsuit document details a lot of very interesting methods for cookie stuffing that shawn + friends were [allegedly] using.  Cakes isn’t going to detail everything about cookie stuffing for any newbies reading, but basically how it works is, if you are part of the ebay affiliate program, and you run a high traffic website, you can leave ebay cookies on visitors computers which will give you a cut of any transactions they do on ebay within the next 30 days or so.  Stuff enough peoples computers with said cookies and you stand to make a signficant amount of cash based on sheer volume.

Heres a few interesting bits gleaned from the pdf docs:
Shawn + friends had a system set up that would record each individual computer they had stuffed in order to not attempt to stuff cookies on that same computer again.  This not only makes things look more legit on ebay’s side in the logs, but prevents anyone trying to observe something shady from duplicating it.  Also, they attempted to geotarget the traffic and prevent any computers located in Santa Barbara, CA (headquarters of Commission Junction, who hosted ebay’s affiliate program) and San Jose, CA (ebay’s headquarters).  This was done to hide the cookie stuffing from ebay and CJ employees (obviously).  Interesting stuff indeed!

The PDF of the legal filing, linked within the pull quotes, on page 2 notes that Dunning had more than one seemingly quasi-shell company going, either on his own or with (his brother?) Todd Dunning. Pages 4-5 describe more how the cookie stuffing allegedly worked.

It's also worth noting that, while Dunning bitches about his Wiki page, Wiki itself explains what cookie stuffing actually is, not Dunning's seeming attempt to explain it away, complete with vetting by lawyers. And, given how much Dunning markets his "Skeptoid swag" ...

Now, back to the original thread of this post ...

Well, imagine my surprise, but not, really, my "surprise," at hearing this:
# Between 2006 and June 2007, Shawn Hogan (Digital Point Solutions) earned approximately $15.5 million in commissions from eBay. Hogan was eBay’s number one affiliate.
# Between 2006 and June 2007, Dunning (Kessler’s Flying Circus) earned approximately $5.3 million in commissions from eBay. Dunning was eBay’s number two affiliate.
# Hogan and Dunning are accused of generating hidden forced clicks on both their own web sites as well as sites not connected with the defendants in order to increase the number of computers storing the eBay affiliate tracking cookie.
# The legal criteria for wire fraud was established not on money (commissions) being transferred over the wires, but because of transmission of the tracking cookie between states and internationally.
Brian ... or anybody else ... care to comment? Guess not, since you said you've got a "partial explanation." Lawyers probably said that's all you could say.

That said, two questions:
1. Why say anything?
2. Why now?

On No. 1, the criminal and civil filings have been out there for months. Your partial explanation won't stop further speculation. But, you probably couldn't resist. Or, maybe you're losing that many donations to Skeptoid. Even though Skeptoid isn't the entity being sued, well, Brian, you've allegedly made your own bed ...

On. No. 2, are we nearing a trial date? Are settlement talks heating up?

Being sued is at one level. With the usual boilerpoint caveat about how people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, being investigated for criminal fraud is another level, and being indicted for that is yet another level. (Here's the PDF of the criminal indictment.)

(A FB friend saw the link on the FB page of a friend of his and emailed me, on the original thread.)


Max said...

The grand jury must've heard both sides of the story, and saw enough there to indict.

A settlement wouldn't drop the criminal charges.

I have to take Brian's denials with a grain of salt, after he inexplicably denied using JunkScience as a source of information on DDT, when it was obvious that he did, and there the stakes were much lower.

Jury trials are a good reason to educate the public about critical thinking.

Gadfly said...

Agreed on "education" and jury trials. I'm thinking something is "coming down the pike" soon; Dunning's Bay Area visit this summer for other things also could have been for ... a deposition?