A Happy Ending To The Saga Of Katie.com?

The whole Katie.com imbroglio seems to have ended happily, or at least, is close to doing so.

Katie Jones, the British owner of the website katie.com since 1996, has had a miserable four years since the publication of a book of the same name, about the true ordeal of a teenager sexually molested by a man she met in an Internet chatroom. After receiving hundreds of emails from people believing they are writing to the author of the book, Jones says recently she has come under pressure to donate the domain to a website being set up to help victims of similar abuse. Jones has declined, despite what she says was an “unpleasant phone call” from a lawyer, Parry Aftab, acting on behalf of the author, Katie Tarbox.

After several news reports and a steady campaign by Jones to publicise Aftab’s alleged efforts to obtain the name, the books publishers are backing off, saying they were never part of the move. A press release (PDF only) issued yesterday by Plume, an imprint of PenguinPuttnam,  says: “In an effort to avoid an association between the book originally titled Katie.com and the website Katie.com, Plume and the author decide to make this title change.”

The release also says: “In addition, it was erroneously reported recently that Plume had asked its attorney to attempt to buy the web site Katie.com from domain owner Katie Jones. This is absolutely not true.” Plume makes clear it’s not part of that attempt: “We are not working in association with author Katie Tarbox or any other individual in an attempt to assume ownership of the domain name address www.katie.com.”

This is a belated but welcome move by the publishers, who must have calculated the negative publicity was outweighing the good. After all, what’s the point of publishing a book about online abuse if you just engage in another form of it against someone whose only mistake was to register a darn good domain name years ago?

There is a loose end yet to be tied, of course. The lawyer and author will also have to back off , abandoning any plans for a website ”where children who have been victimized by Internet sexual predators can go for help and support” around the name katie.com. Aftab, a prominent cybercime and Internet privacy lawyer, may also have some damage control to do. She has declined to comment on previous developments in the case, accusing Jones of having “an agenda”, but as things stand the public perception is that it has been the other way around.

What Katie.com Did Next

Can someone be turfed off their domain by someone bigger?

The experience of Katie Jones, recent mother and owner of an online chat site in the UK, has been well documented elsewhere. (Katie.com is the name of a book about the ordeal of a teenager sexually molested by a man she met in an Internet chatroom. Katie Jones is nothing to do with the book, but has been the owner of the address katie.com since 1996.) Jones’ latest report on her website suggests that she is being unfairly pressured by the publishers of the book that carries her website’s name to donate the website to them. (It is not entirely clear in the posting as to whether the lawyer who contacted her was working on behalf of the author or the publisher, or both.) Anyway, if true, this does seem to take things too far.

I’m no lawyer, but one can’t help wondered how things would look were the roles reversed. If a big player owned the website address, would there not be large amounts of money changing hands by now? Or at least, would not the publishers have changed the name of the book, and not been trying to browbeat her into handing over the domain name?

For Jones herself, I can well imagine the discomfort caused by receiving hundreds of emails, either from individuals detailing their traumas in the mistaken belief they are talking to a fellow victim, or from folks abusing her. It’s nothing compared to what the Katie of the book endured, but that is not the point. It’s easy enough to say, ‘why don’t you just change your email address and drop the domain name?’ but why should she? Why should an individual be hounded from her sentimental slice of online real estate if she doesn’t want to?

I sought a comment from the lawyer linked to in Ms Jones’ latest posting, Parry Aftab, who is described in her online bio as ‘is one of the leading experts, worldwide, on cybercrime, Internet privacy and cyber-abuse issues’ as well as ‘being called “The Angel of the Internet” for her extensive work in Internet safety and cybercrime and abuse prevention around the world’.

Aftab had posted a message to her blog on Thursday saying she was working with Katie Tarbox, the author of the original book, and an organisation called WiredSafety to “help create a place where children who have been victimized by Internet sexual predators can go for help and support”. The program will be called Katie’s Place. A logo of the new, as yet unlaunched site, is prominently displayed at the top of the WiredSafety homepage. Aftab is executive director of WiredSafety, ‘the world’s largest Internet safety, help & education organization’.

Aftab declined to respond in detail to Jones’ account of the telephone conversation or the case, writing: “Katie Jones’ statements are either false or misleading. She obviously has an agenda. And I frankly don’t have the time or energy to be part of it.”