(Update, Aug. 5, 2014: And, he's now been sentenced. Go here for details, and my comments on how the sentencing discussions show Dunning hasn't changed a bit so far.)
(Update 2, Oct. 21, 2015: Dunning is out of the federal clink and unrepentant; he gets his first post-incarceration smackdown from me.)
The piece is thorough on Dunning's background.
If you want more information, here's the PDF of the original criminal complaint, and here's my original blog post on this. You can also click the tag at the end of this blog post to pull up everything I've written about Dunning, not just limited to the cookie-stuffing issue.
Otherwise, no "sad day" from where I sit. contra the blog that first reported this. The "sad day" was when Dunning started doing this stuff. File this under Dark Side Of The Internet; he's a spammer, using the word in a non-technical sense, who did something that's not just spamming but fraudulent.
(Update, May 5, 2013: There's more in this in-depth piece about how eBay was "on" to Dunning and his cohort in crime, Shawn Hogan. That includes Hogan "manning up" on responsibility, but Dunning being too much of a wuss or putz to comment.
Per this story, more proof that Hogan, and surely Dunning, knew what they were doing, and that's the much lesser amount Hogan made on other affiliate marketing. From the FBI files:
"He advised that he earns about $10,000 to $15,000 per month for GOOGLE ads, $1.1 to $1.5 million per month on EBAY, and approximately $8,000 to $10,000 per month for WESTERN UNION. HOGAN stated the money from these affiliates programs has made him lazy on his other stuff."Yeah, making 100x a month more? Big diff.
And, Dunning's probably pissed off at his brother Todd. Todd ratted out Hogan, which made eBay suspicious of him AND Brian, soon enough.)
So, that's reason No. 1 it's no sad day. Related to that is the fact that skepticism, whether of the narrower "scientific" type or the broader philosophical type, is more than just one person.
That said, this isn't the only reason this is no "sad day."
Reason No. 2?
Is that "drivel," as I've already been told on a Facebook post? (The person who started the thread has his status set to "public," therefore I'm not violating privacy.)
I think that, while I can't prove it, it's a reasonable assumption that Dunning's libertarian leanings influenced him to start doing what he did. Bug Girl provides another good example — Dunning cribbing off libertarian/big biz antiscience website Junk Science in order to do a takedown of Rachel Carson.
Seems pretty deliberate to me. If not deliberate, it's hugely lazy not to have researched Junk Science. That said, I'm pretty sure it's the former. And, Bug Girl is, in my opinion, too generously kind to assume he just got mislead. And that, if he did, he didn't do any research on Junk Science's background.
Add to that, that Dunning was also a contributor to the Skeptical Libertarian blog.
That said, in a recent Tweet, actually a re-Tweet Dunning welcomes Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann to the next "The Amazing Meeting." So, Dunning's libertarian leanings are not too overblown, perhaps. Or else, he's just about promoting TAM.
Reason three this is no "sad day"?
In my opinion, Dunning is overrated as a generator of in-depth, independent skeptical thought.
For example, one of his most "favored" blog posts was "five things you don't know about your body."
Top two items? Did you know you don't use just 10 percent of your brain? Did you know that swallowed gum doesn't stay in your body 7 years? Wow!
I mean, it's all honest, skeptical debunking, but none of it is original.
Anyway, I've blogged about Dunning before, most recently about his propensity for setting up straw men, just like he did in his "partial explanation." And, re the Bug Girl link above, even should I be as generous as her about why Dunning did that post of his, he was still quite defensive and slow to correct it.
Dunning's background, and the case itself
Here's Dunning's original "partial explanation." It includes this:
Some bloggers and commenters have claimed that I personally made outrageous amounts of money. This is demonstrably false. Although I did well for the better part of a year, most of the money mentioned in the suit was earned by another affiliate, and our chunk was divided into many different pie slices. I was only one of those slices, despite being the only one criminally charged from our company. I’ve already spent more money in legal fees than I earned from eBay.
|Can you Digg it?|
Also, the nature of cookie stuffing, and related Internet deceptions, as I note here, suggest you probably made "at least a few bucks."
Another reason or two this may not have made more money?
1. Ebay detected it quickly enough (and even did a sting of sorts, eventually);
2. It had not reached its full setup by the time it was caught.
And, per my original blog post on this, there's plenty of evidence of "shells":
• 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.Note that again: $5.3 million. In short, his partial explanation would seem full of bull as to how much money he made, or didn't.
|Yours for just $15!|
(At highly inflated prices, like $27.95 for a T-shirt. Sounds like a guru selling to his cultic followers. Or $15 for the aptly titled rubber stamp; more on it below.)
Back to the serious on this part. I don't know how much he was selling on his own on eBay, or if any of his Skeptoid stuff was sold there. But, the principle of a man with a sharp eye for a sharp product, whether through "raking" with groupies on his own stuff or defrauding other affiliates with eBay, still stands.
Related to that, from a link at my initial post, commenting about the original legal filing, is a lot of evidence of intentionality. Like this:
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! Aspiring search engine cloakers and cookie stuffers, take notice!That's pretty strong evidence from where I sit.
Add to the "intentionality"? Dunning calling eBay's affiliate program "stupid." (That same set of PDFs, on the next page after the linked one, spells out how "poor me" Dunning distributed the money he was making to his and his wife's personal checking accounts [which raises questions of sheltering money, if he's in an "individual property" state] and a brokerage, among other things.)
That includes this information, that he was paying his wife $10K a month, plus both his mother and mother-in-law $2,500 a month for living expenses.
But, Dunning says "poor me."
Again, that means today is, if anything, "an happy occasion," per The Holy Grail.
(Update, March 5, 2014: Lousy Canuck at Freethought Blogs reports Dunning is trying to use 501(c)3 status, allegedly started in 2012, to shield his ill-gotten gains. And, while Jason has a Gnu Atheism motive for ax-grinding, and, I've pointed out some of his Social Justice Warrior nonsense on comments on his own blog, nonetheless, especially as Dunning used to bill himself as a venture capitalist and would know how to play such shell games, I find Thibeault to be making a reasonable explanation of Dunning's motive here. That's also not to say that Dunning is surely not the first person to think of such an idea. It IS to say, though, that he probably was giving himself a "genius" pat on the back while doing so. I'm more skeptical of Dunning's mindset than some friends who have little or no ties to either Gnu Atheism or Movement Skepticism.)
Per the link at top, he still faces sentencing on his criminal case. That blog at top guesstimates 46-57 months is possible, given federal sentencing guidelines (website calculator here) and if the amount of damage is stipulated at $1 million. Technically, he is eligible for probation, but ... who knows. He may use the same charm he did on his groupies and get just that. More seriously, with minor children at home, he might beat it down to 36 months, maybe even 24.
Meanwhile, a civil fraud suit by eBay has been "parked" while the criminal case proceeded. Dunning will probably be pleading that one soon, on advice of attorney and any halfway decent deal.
Given the amount of commissions Dunning et al raked in, plus apparent evidence of trying to cover their tracks, I'd venture eBay is pushing for a seven-figure payback, all told. (Not all of that may fall on Dunning's shoulders, of course.)
Brian, you better start selling a lot of that Skeptoid bling, and soon.
So, to sum up:
A greedy hypercapitalist venture capitalist and libertarian of some sort who puts himself out as a skeptic in part, apparently, to make a buck, or $1 million, off of it, gets busted by our lenient neolib federal government for committing white-collar fraud and being one of the people who has contributed to making fair chunks of the Net the hypercapitalist sewer it is today.
This person's libertarian mindset might have also led to the Wild West idea of "hey, eBay's a big biz, it won't miss some pocket change."
And, some people, apparently Dunning groupies, want to mourn?
Those are the folks unreasonable beyond the three reasons:
Among those groupies is Doubtful News, which first writes a pseudoskeptical suck-up post about Dunning's woes, then goes chickenshit and closes comments. I've both emailed and Tweeted them, and no response yet. And, I'll bet I don't get any.
In comments, got to "love" this one:
I disagree. Lots of people make mistakes, this does not necessarily equate with an intent to defraud. If we lost respect for people who make mistakes (and owned up to them), we’d have no friends at all.Mistakes? Bullshit. Hiding his tracks shows intent pretty damned well. Intentionality ain't a "mistake."
That was followed by this:
For those skeptic bashers who get their jollies out of seeing the misfortune of others like Brian and Randi, you suck. I don’t get any joy seeing anyone suffer. Not even someone I detest.So, people who have pointed out Dunning's libertarianism-skepticism commingling for years are automatically labeled as getting joy out of his suffering? Again, Dunning brought this on himself. Ditto for others who have willfully broken the law, not made "mistakes." So, no, people like you who defend four years' worth of ongoing criminal fraud "suck."
And finally, this:
I don’t think this is at all related to Skeptoid. It had to do with a former employer.Sure it does relate, if I'm right about the libertarian mindset pervading all of Dunning's operations. And, how do you know Dunning didn't try cookie-stuffing on PayPal accounts, or something, if that's how you were buying his swag? (I'm not techie enough to know if that's possible, but, if it is?) And, the "former employee"? I have no idea where that's coming from.
And, per Dunning as businessman, when phrases like "black hat" are repeatedly used about his co-indictee, Shawn Hogan, and Hogan's company, Digital Point, the old "company you keep" phrase comes into mind.
You might want to read your own "what skepticism is" webpage, Doubtful News folks.
Finally, per this blog post about how the cookie stuffing worked, stealing what should have been due them from other affiliates, why wasn't Dunning also charged with theft of services or similar?
Add to this a great story from Ars Technica, also explaining just what was involved.
Between the two, Dunning sympathizers and groupies who claim this is "no big deal" or "this is how Internet affiliate programs work" are simply wrong.
Meanwhile, per the top of this page, rather than it being "drivel" for asking how much Dunning's libertarianism might have influenced his actions, it's "drivel" for someone like Shane Brady, who made that charge, to now claim such nonsense as the bullshit that Dunning wasn't trying to hide his tracks. (Somehow, I suspect the latest link won't impress Brady, even with Hogan making a confession.)
And, since Brady's Facebook status is set to "public," I'll grab this quote from there:
Tonight I feel like the only #skeptic who knows how cookies and advertising workOh, well. Aren't we so almighty, compared to both federal assistant district attorneys and eBay, among others?
But, no, judging by this post alone, even if he's not a professed skeptic, Bruce Schneier knows plenty about cookies.
So does Wikipedia. Its post is easy to follow and non-techie. I linked to it in my original post about Dunning's indictment. (And, speaking of drivel and Wikipedia, would-be edits of his Wiki page by groupies would fall in the area of "drivel." As well as a tacit admission of the degree of his guilt.)
And, if you want an easy-to-understand, non-techie explanation of just what Dunning did, one that should satisfy even libertarian #skeptic cookies-and-ads genius Shane Brady or the fluffers at Doubtful News, along with the criminality issue, go here.
Sorry, Shane, it's not worth the time for me to Photoshop your Facebook icon with a "martyr" back of hand to forehead.
And, the vacuous Justin Vacula both here and on Facebook, pleads for "all the evidence to come in" before making a judgment, apparently ignorant of the fact that a guilty plea means Dunning himself accepts the evidentiary findings!
It's an interesting day indeed when I find Freethought Blogs a general font of wisdom on the subject. And, for the Dunning fluffers, don't post smoochy blogs if you can't stand the heat.
And, while I might have some schadenfreude for Dunning, I'm sorry about his wife and kids who will likely see their dad go to jail. That said, that's not my fault, either.
That said, we can transfer from "true believers" to ...
The cult of Dunning. (And, the quasi-incestuous world of "scientific skepticism")
This all also shows that even the so-called "scientific skepticism" isn't immune to tribalism. Or worse.
And, related to something I've said before about Gnu Atheism, it shows that skepticism is no guarantor of ethical behavior.
Oh, and for a few of his groupies, who accuse me of being a heartless bastich or whatever? Get a life. I guess you'll have to partially get a new one now, anyway; Dunning will have very limited Internet access after sometime in September, unless he gets probation.
But, that phrase cult?
That $15 rubber stamp is a good starting place.
Vistaprint will sell you a customized rubber stamp for $9.99. This place charges just $6.25.
From there, it's the $27.95 T-shirts, way over market price. I'm not even going to do comparison shopping on all his other swag.
And (Update, Feb. 5, 2014) this godawful rapping attempt, combined with comments from Dunning worshipers justifying his stealing from "eBay" (no, he stole from other affiliate marketers) with a Kickstarter campaign.
The point is that, he's got people who will willingly, unskeptically, shell out for these tchotchkes. Enough of them, willingly enough, that I don't think the word "cult" is 100 percent hyperbolic.
If a Doubtful News gets a cut for being an affiliate marketer, sure, that could help. But, what if he's putting cookies on your PayPal account, if that's possible? Just saying.
Meanwhile, per that semi-incestuous part?
The official blog of Skeptic magazine, Skepticblog, put up this mealy-mouthed statement about Dunning taking a leave of absence, put up his refudiated "partial explanation" as the ONLY link, and went Doubtful News one better by blocking comments from the start. (Wonder if Dunning had to be "pushed" into that leave of absence,
Center for Inquiry has yet to say a word about Dunning.
And, Sharon Hill at Doubtful News, as I've been reminded, cloaked Dunning's transgressions with those of James Randi of harboring an illegal immigrant and identity thief as houseboy/lover or whatever fame. First, Dunning's not in Randi's class. But, more importantly, Randi was wrong, too, and not just as a casual error, but, like Dunning, as an ongoing violator of the law. I'll make allowance for Randi having better motives, but that's about it.
So, among people with higher Klout scores than I, that leaves Gnu Atheists like P.Z. Myers and Ophelia Benson to fire away at Dunning. But, because they don't primarily self-identify as "skeptics," they can do this and not be dropping turds in a punch bowl that they drink from. It's the flip side of how a high-profile skeptic will criticize a Sam Harris, but Myers, Jerry Coyne and others will circle the wagons against any Gnu potshots.
That's why, per Groucho Marx, I wouldn't want to be part of any clubs like this.
Dunning himself has a new Skeptoid issue up, but no comment on his case. (And no comment at that May 5 link, either!) And, to some degree, that's legally expected. His plea deal did not include stipulating the amount of losses he accepts were involved. That will happen at the sentencing hearing, which could get contentious, especially if the feds let anybody from eBay be involved. And, speaking of, at that point, eBay's civil suit will likely "unpark" again. So, we won't hear from Dunning for a while. OTOH, Shawn Hogan has spoken, although his legal process may be done.
Meanwhile, somebody, whether Sharon Hill from Doubtful News or somebody else, has edited Dunning's Wikipedia page, trying to fluff it a bit. Or more. Per a discussion on Facebook, apparently most of the edits have been undone. Thankfully. And, speaking of Wikipedia pages, re both Dunning and Randi, Hill's page makes clear that she has bread-buttering reasons for her stance.
And, a note for Paul V, and others like him.
With it's own emboldened subhead, no less.
A few comments back to Paul's first two comments to this blog post, and in more depth than my original replies to him.
First, Dunning's plea deal was more than three weeks ago. I don't know what blog post you're talking about in which you claim I failed to answer your critiques of my comments. It's called "posting a link." (More on that in a minute.)
Second, I don't respond to every critique/criticism of me in every blog thread. Sometimes, I post one general response. That doesn't mean that I don't think your criticism is not worthy of being address.
Third, sometimes, though, it isn't worthy of being addressed. Or, per the old legal phrase, it's already been "asked and answered." If you don't like the response, that's your problem, not mine.
Fourth, the biggie.
If Dunning actually has documents from eBay that he claims will exonerate him, er, why the hell aren't they already on his website?
And, that gets back to "posting a link" in spades.
At a minimum, until you post links about previous dialogue we've had about Dunning's guilt at other blog posts, I don't want you posting here. At a maximum, until you cough up links to these magic eBay documents, with some context, such as when they were written, when Dunning got them, etc., I don't want you posting about that angle at all.
And, yes, I'll delete posts if I need to. And have done so. Some temporarily (for now), others permanently.
As for "research." I went by Dunning's website, and blog, earlier today, May 14. No such documents have been posted. Still haven't been. Therefore, Paul V, you're naive or gullible to say I haven't done research. And, to bring that topic up when Dunning could have posted them way back in his "partial explanation," is a red herring tour de force.
You talk about me not doing research; you post an "I heard" rumor then chide me on not doing research. You repeatedly claim that "I was refuted" on some blog, then refuse to provide the link for which one.
Since you don't tell me what blog post you're talking about, I can't see if "several people" called me out or not. I do know that I responded quickly enough in the first week or so after Dunning's plea. And adequately refuted their comments.
If you don't like my refutation, tough. Find your own sandbox.
Anyway, I also find it laughable that anybody who describes himself as a leftist would defend a libertarian like Dunning. Paul also failed his basic research, calling me a liberal when I self-identify as a left-liberal.
Anybody like Paul V? I'm now moderating all posts here, first. Second, if you want to make claims like Paul V, that there's evidence eBay was OK with this, beyond Dunning's claims that have already been shot down, I want links. More than Dunning has provided himself. Beyond that, Paul, you repeatedly refused to actually respond to what I was asking for.
Dunning the person?
From an occasional Skepticblog post, when he's not fusing libertarianism and skepticism, or attacking anything that puts into question such fusing, he seems like a decent guy. (Well, maybe a bit of a sexist, and a narcissistic one at that, judging by this.) And? Loyd Blankfein may really do "the Lord's work" when Goldman Sachs isn't looting and pillaging.
We're all complex in at least a few ways. And, books shouldn't be judged by their covers.
How much of what we'll label as "Brian Dunning" (ignoring philosophical issues of subselves) is decent guy and how much is scammer, I don't know. How much of him is genuine skeptic and how much of him is libertarian with a veneer, I don't know.
But, I've already known part of him is libertarian with a veneer. We know now that part of him is scammer, too.
That's why, re cookie stuffing, while his Thunderwood College, for fake free online degrees, is mildly funny, who's to say there's not something cookie-related nefarious about it? I mean, there's now a trust issue certainly raised in my mind. For Dunning groupies to not "get" that means they won't be amenable to viewing him more skeptically for some time.
That said (and, yes, I know it's pretty much a crock) there are the theoretical five stages of grief. I guess a lot of folks are still in denial, even if they don't live in Egypt.
Meanwhile, August isn't too far away.
What sort of sentence will Dunning get? What should he get?
On "will," I'll go lower than the blogger. I say 24-30 months. Gets out of prison itself after no more than 18 months.
And, I'm waiting to see what will happen. So, too, is Wikipedia, where somebody has tentatively started a "Brian Dunning (felon)" page, since deleted.
The judge should, first, ban him from Internet-based businesses for at least five years. (And yes, such bans are legal.) Maybe ban him for longer from any Internet-based affiliate marketing program.
To the degree he can pay anything, he ought to be fined rather strongly. And, given his minimalism, at best, on global warming, the fines should go to environmental organizations or something.
Having read Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice" multiple times, I do believe "justice" doesn't truly exist. That's not because I'm a cynic, but we live in a world of multiple actors with multiple moral agendas; it's simply impossible, Platonic idealism aside, to create capital-J justice. That said, my moral philosophy theory leans toward consequentialism, if you try to pin my down. But, with a dash of virtue ethics. In terms of philosophical names, that means I agree most with Mill and Bentham (while stipulating utilitarian ideas of justice founder on the rock that Kaufmann raised), with a dash of Aristotle.
And a sidebar: One commenter on the blog that broke this noted the sleaze factor of Dunning overcharging for all those tchotchkes even while running his eBay scam. Agreeing with a friend of mine, even if Dunning did nothing wrong on the cookie-stuffing, and thought there was nothing wrong, the man's a few kilograms of magnetized iron short of an accurate and strong moral compass.
The Aristotle is why I say send the fines to environmental groups. It's virtue ethics with a twist on the personal background of Dunning.
Update, May 28, 2014: Dunning and his fans may have some reason to be hopeful on his sentencing. Dunning's accomplice in crime, Shawn Hogan, was just sentenced and the terms are light.
If he's getting five months, unless there's other circumstances for a judge to consider, I guess Dunning gets four?