Startup Trustev wants to fix Internet comments with digital fingerprinting

A better way to clean up the Internet's waste

Trustev's main business is in what it calls "digital fingerprinting" -- an anti-fraud technology for e-commerce that can identify known credit card scammers and block them so thoroughly and completely that they would need an entirely new computer to mess with the business. Would-be fraudsters get turned away, and real customers don't even know they're being screened. (Radio Shack already uses it to protect online transactions.)

Today, Trustev is expanding its digital fingerprinting business beyond e-commerce by launching Trustev for Publishers with a goal near and dear to any reporter's heart: Helping publishers ban toxic Internet commenters completely from their websites, providing no leeway for even setting up a second account. Trustev thinks this can raise the level of online discourse and help stop harassment campaigns the likes of #GamerGate before they even begin.  

Trustev CEO Pat Phelan said this solution came about after his own experiences on Twitter: He describes his online persona as "pretty outspoken," but still finds himself in a perpetual state of shock at the vitriol he sometimes gets about even mundane things. 

"Jesus, the language used there is incredible," Phelan said. 

There's a cycle to online harassment. You block the offender. The offender sets up a second Twitter/Wordpress/Yahoo/whatever account. You block that one, too. So they set up a third. And so on. Phelan calls it "whack-a-mole."

The best case scenario is that the harasser on the other end gives up before you do. The worst case is that your choices become put up with abuse forever or just stop trying.  That doesn't really make for healthy online discussion, especially when it comes to controversial subjects.

"The whole story is destroyed," Phelan said.

There are good comments sections out there, to be sure: the AV Club, among others, stands out, largely because of the strong hand it takes to moderating a discussion and kicking out bad seeds as they sprout. But keeping up with the aforementioned cycle  takes a tremendous investment of time and talent, which isn't for everybody. Our colleagues at Re/code, for instance, recently made the controversial decision to shut down comments entirely and urged readers to take any discussion to social media.

Trustev sees a better way. With Trustev for Publishers, blocking a person once means they're gone. That "digital fingerprint" takes everything into account when banning a user -- not just the IP address, which is easy to spoof, but everything from browser configuration and extensions down to operating system version and amount of RAM installed.

Phelan said that digital fingerprinting has a 99.93% positive rate (which sucks for the other 0.07%).  

You can't even get around a Trustev ban with a virtual machine running on your desktop. The only way to beat it, Phelan says, is to get a new computer entirely. And if you mess up again, it's back to the blacklist. Those blacklists are internal to the organization -- unlike credit card fraud, Internet comments can't be judged objectively, and a "good" comment on one site may be a bannable offense on another (one man's misogynist screed is another, terrible, man's manifesto, as #GamerGate repeatedly proves). But if you're publishing multiple sites, you can share a blacklist within a  company. It's billed on the transaction level, costing publishers a few cents per addition to the blocklist. 

Trustev for Publishers is potentially a powerful tool for the publisher's arsenal. But just banning commenters alone isn't going to stop toxic Internet culture -- Your site might be safe, but commenters will just take the garbage they spew elsewhere, and you can't stop awful people from going online.

Still, it's Phelan's hope that getting banned so thoroughly from comment sections will at least teach people some manners. 


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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