"You Called Our Widget A What?"

Companies are hiring snoops to locate their online critics so they can confront them

Now corporate spinmeisters can go online to track customers--especially the disgruntled ones who vent in cyberspace.

That's right. All those companies you love to hate now have a way to find out who's griping about them, and they can target complainers for a little reeducation. Thanks to a new product called Cybersleuth from Dallas-based eWatch--and sold through Edelman Interactive Solutions public-relations agency and PR Newswire--companies can now monitor what people do or say on the Web and respond.

The result: So-called anticorporate activism, as it's known in the flack trade, will never be the same--and neither will your sense of free speech as a consumer.

How does it work? Partly, eWatch says, through a little info-cleansing. "We can neutralize the information appearing online, identifying the perpetrators behind uncomplimentary postings and rogue Web sites," the company's online promo material says. Then, eWatch can "remove offending messages from where they appear in cyberspace."

This may amount to something as simple as persuading a Web portal, such as Yahoo! to delete a posting from a message board or it could mean "the shuttering of a terrorist Web site." The objective: "To stop the spread of incorrect information and to ensure that what has already spread is eliminated," eWatch says.

Tracking "perpetrators" is also part of the service, says eWatch National Product Manager Ted Skinner. That's done by using a variety of methods, such as following leads found in postings and Web sites, working with Internet service providers, getting law-enforcement officials involved, and conducting "virtual stings and other tactics," according to Skinner.

COLLECTING DOSSIERS. Such tools don't come cheap. eWatch will identify a person or group behind a screen name that has targeted a company or organization within 7 to 10 days for a price of up to $4,995 per screen name. For an extra $1,995 per screen name, eWatch says it can give a company results within 48 hours. Either way, Skinner says, companies that use eWatch "will receive a dossier detailing all information gathered about the subject during the inquiry."

The trouble is that the so-called perpetrators targeted by eWatch are often people like you and me exercising our right to free speech. Think about it. Say that you get poor service from XYZ Corp. and you criticize the company in your favorite chatroom. XYZ, an eWatch customer, could--if it wanted to--monitor that complaint, find out who you are, and get XYZ's public-relations crew to send you an e-mail trying to change your mind.

Or if you're spreading phony tips about XYZ stock in an online financial forum, XYZ could "work with" an Internet service provider to erase your comments from the site.

Earlier this year, eWatch's Skinner says, Northwest Airlines Corp. used his service to help it track down the identities of employees who organized a "sick-out" that nearly halted flights over the last Christmas holiday. The company has since fired those employees, and a court has upheld the legality of that action. The ruling is under appeal. Northwest is now using eWatch to help it target--for reeducation--the most teed-off of its fed-up fliers.

Defenders of the Net strategy point out that companies can use it to personalize customer service. So why not use it to do one-on-one public relations?

To me, there's something very troubling about cyber-spinning. Good public-relations personnel can quell panic and remind people of their company's side of the story in a crisis. But personalized spin campaigns? The potential for abuse seems too high, and the idea sounds ominous to those who cherish free speech.

Even at its most benign, the idea is unsettling. It used to be you could share your opinion about a company with someone online without worrying that the company would ever find out about it. Knowing of the risk of getting targeted by a corporate reeducation campaign, how much will a private citizen say online? What will happen to online communities that form around a common experience with, say, a lemon of a car or a harmful product? Maybe containment is the point, but it's hard to believe that healthy and robust e-commerce, not to mention the right of free speech, can be well-served with privacy-busting products such as these.

If they land in overaggressive hands, snoop services such as eWatch sound like a PR disaster waiting to happen.