by Colin Muller
Once upon a time, people talked shit about corporations on websites they ran themselves.
Did you just work a particularly shitty shift at Walmart? Visit walmart-blows.com to vent about your boss. Had an especially crappy experience flying United? Go to Untied.com to blow off some steam.
This was the promise of the “gripe site,” a fixture of an earlier era of the web. Often using the format CompanyName-sucks.com, gripe sites allowed people to anonymously complain about companies. Nowadays, gripe sites are digital refuse. Their old URLs lead to 404s or ancient HTML pages. Indeed, the very idea of having a website dedicated to griping about a single company feels antiquated in an age where we have websites like Yelp, Glassdoor, Twitter, and Facebook to meet our griping needs.
But the rise and fall of gripe sites are an important chapter in the history of the internet. Gripe sites were far more than a place to complain. Rather, they offered a lively, anonymous outlet for consumers and workers to criticize corporate power, and even to organize against it.
As a result, they faced an onslaught of attacks from companies. Gripe sites were the flashpoint for intense legal and regulatory battles—battles that boiled down to a confrontation between two conflicting visions of the internet’s purpose. Who owns the internet, and what is it for? This was the core question in the war over gripe sites, and one that remains no less urgent today.
In 2004 there were around 7,800 .com websites that included company names and derisive slang verbs like “sucks” or “blows.” They were so popular in the early 2000s that Forbes even published several annual “Top Corporate Hate Websites” articles, ranking gripe sites on criteria like “ease of use, frequency of updates, number of posts, hostility level, relevance, and entertainment value.”
Where did all these sites come from? Gripe site founders were often motivated by specific grievances. The creator of WalMart-Blows.com said he created it because he was "pissed off at Wal-Mart… for their crappy customer service and for treating their employees like s--t." Bradley Jones ran a Radio Shack for seven years and launched his gripe site, RadioShackSucks.com, after suing the company for refusing to renew his contract and opening up a competing franchise down the street from his location.
These gripers felt that the existing institutional routes for redress weren't effective. By making their complaints public, they hoped to shame the company into making improvements or, at the very least, find solace in sharing their irritation with others.
And it turned out that many people did share their irritation—especially workers. The single most active group of gripers were the company’s employees themselves. They gathered on gripe sites to commiserate about how much their job sucked—anonymously and out of earshot of the boss. This was especially useful for workers who worked different shifts or at different franchise locations. Gripe sites brought these atomized workers together. It functioned as an online water cooler that facilitated candid conversations about their workplace conditions.
Moreover, these conversations often touched on the need for collective action to improve their situation. Talk of labor rights dominated gripe sites, especially those of major retail and food service companies like McDonald’s, Lowes, and Walmart. On Walmart-Blows.com, the most frequented forum was the “Employee Department,” where popular threads bore titles like “Unionization,” “Piss Poor Wages?,” and “1-800 Sick Call.”
As gripe sites became places for worker empowerment, however, bosses came to see them as a threat and discouraged their employees from using them. As one user on RadioShackSucks.com claimed, “My boss threatened to fire me if I ever went on this site. He said the DO [District Office] would do it, no questions asked.”
Sticks and Stones
Management was right to fear gripe sites. They could hurt companies in very concrete ways.
In 2004, a group of store managers brought a class action lawsuit against RadioShack for failing to pay them overtime. Both RadioShack and the law firm representing the underpaid employees recognized the role that RadioShackSucks.com played in quickly encouraging 3,300 current or former employees to join. RadioShackSucks.com even linked to the site of the law firm, encouraging visitors to see if they were eligible for the suit.
Labor unions latched onto the gripe site model as well. UNITE HERE and the Teamsters targeted the anti-union company Cintas with a website called CintasExposed.org. Recognizing gripe sites’ ability to bring workers and consumers together, the unions encouraged Cintas clients to vent about their bad experiences—“Tell your Cintas story”—and read through experiences posted by others. The site also described how clients could file complaints against Cintas and cancel their contracts with the company.
But gripe sites didn’t need to help mobilize lawsuits and consumer campaigns in order to hurt companies. They could also make corporations sweat merely by existing. From a branding perspective, gripe sites were a nightmare. Much of a company’s value is based on their brand’s reputation. On the web, however, almost anyone could register a domain name and build a website that damaged that reputation. Every post by gripers served to chip away at a company’s brand—and by extension its profits.
The Empire Strikes Back
As companies recognized the danger of gripe sites, they developed an arsenal of tactics to fight back.
The first step was usually to hire a cyber-monitoring firm. These companies would trawl through websites to look for threats to a client’s reputation. Once they found a damaging website, the client’s law firm would send the site’s owner a cease-and-desist letter.
The letters typically claimed several serious violations and demanded that the site be taken down to avoid a lawsuit. It is unknown how many sites folded at this point. Most gripe site owners had neither the time nor the money to conduct an intense legal fight. But many of them were up for a battle, and even posted the cease-and-desist letters to their site for fellow gripers to laugh about.
If the company took the gripe site owner to court, they would usually bring hundreds of pages of “evidence” claiming several legal violations in the hopes that one would stick. The three most common claims were libel, trademark violation, and cybersquatting. This technique of aggressive litigating deployed by companies is a textbook example of a SLAPP. A SLAPP is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation and, as the name suggests, SLAPPs are designed to silence critics by forcing them to focus their time and money on legal defense.
A few states have tried to pass laws to curb SLAPPs, but it is difficult to demonstrate that a lawsuit is a SLAPP since companies rarely explicitly state that their intentions are to intimidate. This difficulty is compounded in the case of anti-gripe site SLAPPs, since courts take trademark laws very seriously and are unlikely to see suits as frivolous. Equipped with trademark laws, companies were able to—at least temporarily—rein in criticism through long and expensive lawsuits.
Yet despite the significant legal firepower that corporations assembled, courts would often end up siding with the owner of the gripe site. Sometimes these suits could even backfire, as a company’s attempt to silence criticism led to increased attention for the gripe site. This was the case with ihateryanair.co.uk, a gripe site devoted to RyanAir. After a British court ruled that it had to be taken down, its owner transferred its contents to ihateryanair.org, a “generic top-level domain” (gTLD) not under British jurisdiction.
To forgo this game of cat-and-mouse, as well as the legal fees associated with filing all those lawsuits, companies eventually turned to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a US-based nonprofit that oversees the Domain Name System (DNS). In fact, ICANN’s controversial Trademark Clearinghouse has given corporations their most powerful weapon in their war against gripe sites.
Companies can submit their trademarks to the Clearinghouse, which will then deter the registration of domain names that come too close to those trademarks. If someone tries to register a domain name with a gTLD like .com, .org, or .net that contains words linked to someone’s entry in the Trademark Clearinghouse—GoogleSucks.com, for example—then they will receive a warning that discourages them from continuing. The trademark holder will also be notified. ICANN doesn’t currently block such registrations entirely, but establishing a mechanism for doing so remains a high-priority item for industry.
In 2015, ICANN released the new .sucks gTLD, creating an exciting opportunity to reinvigorate gripe sites. However, this potential was quickly squelched by ICANN's Trademark Clearinghouse, which broadly prevented anyone but the companies themselves from registering domain names under the .sucks gTLD that contained their trademarks. Many companies took advantage of the opportunity to buy up their .sucks domain: for example, Apple.sucks redirects to their feedback page.
ICANN has proven a very effective ally for corporations seeking to silence critical speech. With ICANN’s help, corporations can neutralize gripe sites by preventing them from ever being registered in the first place.
Commodify Your Gripe
Today, many are rightfully pessimistic about the internet’s ability to serve emancipatory politics. But the story of gripe sites reveals a forgotten kernel of emancipatory potential. By enlisting ICANN to protect their brands, however, companies eroded that potential—and an opportunity for democratic dissent, not to mention labor and consumer organizing, was lost.
In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein reflected on early instances of anti-gripe site lawsuits along with other forms of what she called “copyright and trademark harassment.” She wrote that the underlying message behind these suits was “that culture is something that happens to you… It is not something in which you participate, or to which you have the right to respond.”
Gripe sites present us with a lost moment in the history of the internet when people had the power to critically respond to companies on platforms they managed themselves—and companies told them to shut up.
We now have many more opportunities to gripe on social media. But platforms like Yelp and Facebook and Twitter are owned and managed by corporations, not by users. When we criticize United Airlines on Facebook, we are making money for Facebook. Online griping has been monetized and defanged. We can complain more freely than ever before—but only because our complaints generate value for a handful of big companies. It’s never been easier to talk shit, because it’s never been more lucrative to let us do so.
Colin Muller researches and writes about internet politics, harmful online speech, and community-run networks.