The strangest domain-name squabble ever

Girl Scouts, domestic violence awareness, charges of racism and censorship -- this Web site fight is a train wreck!


Farhad Manjoo
September 19, 2002 11:34PM (UTC)

For six years, California's Santa Clara County paid a 53-year-old webmaster named Douglas Dailey to post government documents on his Web site, the Domestic Violence Project of Santa Clara County. But in early September, says Dailey, county officials told him, without giving an explanation, that they would no longer fund his operation. Then, on Sept. 13, Kristin Baker, an attorney for the county, sent him a curt two-line e-mail message ordering him to shut down the entire site.

"The content on the [Web site] has not been authorized by the Domestic Violence Council or the County of Santa Clara," the note said. "The content must be removed immediately or legal action may follow."

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Dailey balked. The domain name, Growing.com, is registered in his name, and he created the site before he began receiving a government salary to maintain it. He changed the name of the site to the Domestic Violence Project of Silicon Valley California, and he says the county has no right to tell him what he can put online, especially since they're no longer paying him. But he also says he thinks he knows why the county is going after his content -- he believes the county's new director of social services is upset that the site, which offers a compendium of local and national resources to help women stuck in abusive relationships, also criticizes local policies. Dailey maintains that Santa Clara County often has children removed from their parents as a way to get more federal funds; the county, he says, is scared that he'll reveal this information on his site. He calls the attempt to shut down his site government censorship.

Baker dismisses Dailey's claims. She says that Dailey was initially dismissed for budgetary reasons, and the county later decided it wanted him to take down his site because it is "widely perceived" to be run by the county. In fact, she noted, the county has already been threatened with a lawsuit from the Girl Scouts of Santa Clara County because of content hosted on Dailey's site.

The Santa Clara Girl Scouts, it turns out, are claiming that Dailey's site infringes on their intellectual property and that pictures of scouts on the site endangered the girls.

Dailey says the Girl Scouts were upset only because he posted pictures of African-American scouts on his site, not white girls. Some people in the Santa Clara Girl Scouts, Dailey says, are racist, and they don't want the black girls honored on the site. The Scouts deny this claim.

Girls Scouts, domestic violence, and charges of racism and government censorship -- if this domain-name squabble sounds more confusing than most, that's because it is. As an example of what can happen when well-meaning local governments let private citizens take on sensitive projects, the brouhaha over Growing.com is a cautionary tale suggesting that some topics should probably be handled in a more formal manner. At this point none of the parties involved in the case agree on even the basic facts. Everyone wants to take credit for anything positive that may have come out of the site, but no one will shoulder any blame for the current animosity -- and lost in all this is the point of the whole endeavor, which was to do some good in the world.

The Growing.com domain-name battle began with the best of intentions: to help victims of domestic violence. Dailey's sister was killed by her violent husband, and he first created the site, he says, as a way to prevent more deaths. "What [abused women] want more than anything else is someone who's gone through it before to give them information about it so they can regain some sort of control," says Dailey. "I tried to put up that information on my site."

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Not long after Dailey created the page in 1996, it caught the attention of the county's social services agency, which did not have its own domestic violence Web site at the time. Officials there were apparently pleased with the comprehensiveness of Dailey's project, and they offered to pay him to add the county's documents to his page. Dailey, who describes himself as someone of "very modest means," accepted the offer, and over the years the site became the de facto county page for information on domestic violence. The site did not bill itself as an "official" Santa Clara County site, but the county government "promoted it all over the place," Dailey says, putting the address "on posters and coffee mugs." Many in the county came to assume that Dailey's site, which now has hundreds of links to research on the causes of domestic violence as well as dozens of Santa Clara County publications on the subject, was maintained and owned by the county, not by a private citizen.

Some of the links on Dailey's site have always strayed from the mainstream, and he says that Santa Clara County has always "caught flak" for content on his site. Dailey puts up "emotionally charged content with pictures of battered women," he says, and he often links to controversial research (for example, he once referred to research suggesting that circumcised men are more likely than uncircumcised men to become abusive). Dailey's contract with the county appears to have allowed him to put up anything he wanted. "I was given a certain amount of liberty that they wouldn't give a county employee," he says.

But in the summer of 2001, Dailey's liberty got the county in real trouble. The Girl Scouts of Santa Clara County, a subsidiary of the national Girl Scouts, objected to a page on Dailey's site that described a "domestic violence awareness merit program." The Scouts said that the merit program was an "altered" version of the Scouts' own domestic violence "patch program," and they objected to the pictures Dailey had posted of scouts who'd passed the domestic violence program.

Dailey and the county tried to work with the Scouts to resolve the issue, but Dailey says that the "Scouts always changed their story," and he has reason to suspect, he says, that the Scouts' intellectual-property concerns were a canard. What's the real reason the Girl Scouts of Santa Clara County wanted him to take down his merit page? The troop whose pictures he'd posted happened to be one led by an African-American troop leader, Neicsa Jackson, and many of the girls in the troop belonged to ethnic minorities. Dailey says that the Scouts didn't like his honoring a minority troop and not a troop of white girls.

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JoAnne Neil, CEO of the Santa Clara Scouts, vehemently denied this charge. "That's just not true," she said, "and I don't know why they'd say that." The only reason the Scouts wanted changes to the page, Neil said, was because it was giving out identifying information about the scouts -- it included pictures, first names and possibly last names (that's one of the facts in dispute), the schools the girls attended, and instructions on how to purchase photographs of the girls. "In the Girl Scouts handbook we had clear guidelines for safety on the Internet," Neil said, and this site violated those guidelines.

Both Dailey and Jackson, the troop leader, say they had the girls' parents' permission to put up those pictures. But Neil said that regardless of permission, "it's not OK to have identifying information."

In fact, according to a letter the Scouts sent to Jackson, the Scouts terminated her from her troop leader's position for, among other things, allowing Dailey to put up the pictures of the girls. Jackson, though, maintains that she was fired because she's black -- because the Scouts couldn't handle that her troop, and not an all-white troop, was the first in the state to pass the domestic violence awareness program. "When you're black, you know when things are racial," she said.

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After being fired, Jackson contacted the San Jose branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to report the incident. The Scouts met with the NAACP, and "the NAACP dismissed that claim," Neil said.

But Dailey finds it hard to believe the Scouts. He says that it was Pam Butler, a domestic violence expert who helps him run the site, who came up with the idea of the domestic violence awareness program for the Scouts -- and that the Santa Clara Scouts have always tried to steal the credit for Butler's idea.

When asked if it was possible that the Scouts may have had good reason to object to the girls' pictures being online, Dailey said he didn't think so. The girls themselves were "overjoyed" about the pictures, he said, and the parents had given their permission. He can think of no reason other than racism.

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And Dailey can also think of no other cause for being dismissed by the county than the county's new head of social services, Norma Doctor-Sparks. " On his site, he wrote that Doctor-Sparks "goes from community to community ... in order to cut services and expenses." In another post, he alleged that the county was taking children away from abused mothers in order to receive an increase in federal funds. (He has since taken down these posts).

When he received the note from the county asking him to take down his content, Dailey was defiant. He contacted the news media and Internet law experts at Harvard, Stanford and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to alert them to this case of "government censorship."

Dailey alleges censorship because, he says, he "came close to the truth" about social services in California. That truth, he says, is at a Web site called Justice for Families, a page that alleges that child protective services departments all over the country -- departments that remove kids from allegedly abusive parents -- form a $12 billion "industry." Local municipalities are financially rewarded for removing kids from parents, the page says, so they do that all too frequently. Dailey believes that Santa Clara County is guilty of such practices, and he thinks it rather suspicious that the county demanded he take down his site only after he linked to Justice for Families.

Dailey doesn't have any smoking gun for his assertions. He pointed to a memo written by Doctor-Sparks in which she says that if the county doesn't build a new social services building it will lose "funds allocated for the provision of adoptive services." This quote, Dailey contends, is quite damning -- it proves that the county relies heavily on funds for adoption, which means, he says, "that an adequate supply of children be removed from their parents, regardless of cause."

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But it seems like something of a leap to equate Doctor-Sparks' request for a new building with a desire on her part to take kids away from parents.

Baker, the county attorney, said that the county's demand that Dailey take down his site had nothing to do with Dailey's links, and everything to do with the Girl Scouts' threat of litigation. "The county has received demand letters and was threatened with a lawsuit over the content of that Web site," she said. "Where we are liable for something, I believe we have the right to say, Take that off."

Baker said that because Dailey's site looks like a county site, the legal "lines are blurred." Ownership doesn't matter, she said -- perception does. "If he had his own site that had never been related to the county, that's fine," she said. "But if he starts to make it look like a county Web site, and if we get sued, it's not fine. If we never got a demand letter he could do whatever he wanted."

But it's not clear that the site does look like a county site -- Dailey has added a bold disclaimer saying that he's not being funded by any agency. And if the county was sued by a group that thought it was responsible for Dailey's content, couldn't the county simply say it had no hand in Dailey's work? "We're not sure if that would be fair," Baker said, oddly. "If people were perceiving it as county site, we feel some responsibility for the content, and it wouldn't be fair to shove it off and put it onto him if it appears as a county site." Still, she said, if he didn't alter the site, it would be fair for the county to sue Dailey, and she's confident the county would win.

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Lee Tien, an attorney at the EFF, is not as confident in the county's case. "Local governments have quite a lot of protection in this area," he said. "Even if it's their site they may not be liable -- and if [Dailey] disclaims it's a county site, then it's hard to see how the county would be held liable." Also, Tien wonders why the county seems concerned enough with the Girl Scouts claim to ask that he take the site down now, but did not ask the same thing when they were funding him.

Tien raises a good point, because the Girl Scouts say that they are no longer even pursuing a case against the county. "I haven't been on the site recently," said Neil, of the Santa Clara Scouts. "When we last worked things out with the county it appeared that they were going to do what we asked," she added. That was in June.

Baker did not return follow-up phone calls for comment, so it is unclear why the county still believes that it could pay damages for content on a site that it doesn't fund, to a party that no longer cares what's on the site.

And so, in the end, it's hard to see where the county's case is. Douglas Dailey will likely get to keep his site, and he'll keep pursuing the truth, he says. From experience, he knows that when he hits upon a good thing, others -- like the Girl Scouts, or the county -- will try to take credit for it. "And it's fine with me if everyone wants to take the credit," he says, "but if you want to take it over, that's not OK."

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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