Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The Case of the Criminal Crossdressing Congressman

Jerry Stratton, July 6, 2010

Harry Reid dresses as Sharron Angle

Sharron Angle is a better choice for Senator than you, Harry. But dressing up like her doesn’t do you any favors.

Executive summary: The Harry Reid campaign copied challenger Sharron Angle’s web site, nearly exactly. They made a web site that was easily confused with Angle’s own web site—in fact, the URL was “theRealSharronAngle.com”. That host is owned by the Reid campaign. In essence, Reid dressed up one of his web sites to look as if it were Angle’s. The Reid campaign claimed that their crossdressing was to “preserve” Angle’s views.

But they didn’t just copy the positions. They also copied her forms, and the form that asked for contact information still worked. Angle’s lawyer claims that it still worked and accepted contact information without error, presumably sending to the Reid campaign.

Reid is claiming it was a mistake. That’s not an easy mistake to make. I know a lot of non-web folks think that a web site is just a web site. For example, a commenter on Legal Insurrection says that forms normally just go directly to emails, so it’s not surprising the form still worked.

This is a field I know something about. While forms often go to emails, they do not go directly to emails.1 They go through backend computer code first. Most often on a form like this, the backend code will store it in a database rather than send it out again to (in this case) the Angle team via email, but the latter isn’t totally uncommon. In either case, though, it goes through backend code first.

Unless the form continued to send people to Sharron Angle’s real web site (as opposed to “the real Sharron Angle web site” that the Reid campaign dressed up), then it would have failed and given an error to any visitors. Unless the Reid campaign reconnected the form to their own backend code to grab the submissions.

Protecting her own website

Odd headline for Talking Points Memo. Do they think it strange that Angle would protect her “own” web site’s copyright? Whose web site should she protect if not her own?

There is no way to copy a web site’s pages from one server to another using a browser2, and have the forms continue to work on the new server, without ensuring that the forms are connected to backend code. For Sharron Angle’s forms to continue to accept supporter contact information when copied to Harry Reid’s servers, without sending the info to Sharron Angle, Harry Reid’s campaign had to reconnect those forms to their own back-end code.

If the form did not generate an error when it was submitted, and didn’t go back to Angle’s web site, then the Reid campaign reconnected the form to their own backend code.

Imagine the other way around. In 2012, the Republican candidate copies President Obama’s web site exactly and reconnects the contact form. To visitors, it looks like they’re signing up with the Obama campaign, but they’re not. Is the issue still “he’s hiding something?” Of course not. The issue is that the copier is not only pretending to be someone they’re not, but they’re also phishing for supporter information.

Copying a web site without comment is a violation of copyright. It’s against the law. Pretending to be someone else’s web site and accepting form submissions as if you were someone else may or may not be against the law, but it’s definitely unethical. The Reid campaign’s actions here were both illegal and unethical.

  1. While it is possible to set a form to go directly to an email using the “mailto:” URL service, this is exceedingly rare on professional web sites pretty much by definition: a professional web site won’t use it. It is unreliable at best and it confuses visitors.

  2. As opposed to hacking into the server and copying the code directly, which would have been even more illegal.

  1. <- Bureaucracy or conspiracy?
  2. C4P San Diego Meetup ->