Lawsuit: Ashley Madison Harassed and Threatened Owner of AshleyMadisonSucks.com
The insane saga of a website that tried to take on Ashley Madison.
Noel Biderman. Image: AP
Executives at Ashley Madison allegedly threatened, harassed, impersonated and attempted to blackmail the creator of AshleyMadisonSucks.com, an anonymous Ashley Madison review site, according to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission obtained by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information Act Request.
Many of the claims made in the complaint are supported by evidence attached to a never-filed lawsuit that was eventually settled out of court.
Avid Life Media, Ashley Madison's parent company, eventually paid three plaintiffs $70,000 to make the matter go away quietly, and an extra $5,000 for rights to the AshleyMadisonSucks.com domain name, according to terms of a settlement agreement contained in files released by the hackers who breached Ashley Madison earlier this year.
Avid Life Media later turned AshleyMadisonSucks.com into an SEO farm designed to both funnel traffic to the Ashley Madison site and to learn more about those with complaints about the site.
In late 2009, Dennis Bradshaw, a Hollywood-based marketer, set up AshleyMadisonSucks.com, a blog asking disappointed users to submit their stories about the extramarital dating site. In his original post, Bradshaw, who used the pseudonym "David," wrote that "Ashley Madison is a scam" and that the site was filled with bots. (Data from the Ashley Madison hack suggests that the site likely did make heavy use of bots.) Future posts by "David" and anonymous contributors detail a number of grievances with the hookup site.
In March of 2010, Avid Life Media, including Ashley Madison founder and then-CEO Noel Biderman, became aware of the site and attempted to get it taken down. Avid Life filed a trademark infringement complaint with Bradshaw's hosting company, which turned over his identifying information to Avid Life. The Toronto-based company then filed a Canadian trademark infringement lawsuit, which claimed that the AshleyMadisonSucks.com URL was "confusingly similar" to ashleymadison.com.
After being informed by Bradshaw's lawyer that he was not subject to Canadian trademark laws, Avid Life offered to buy AshleyMadisonSucks.com for $10,000.
"You've got 24 hours my friend. Tell him to give me the URL … if you don't, I'm going to drag you through the mud."
When Bradshaw refused, the company allegedly started a campaign of harassment and blackmail against Bradshaw and his then-girlfriend, according to both the lawsuit and the FTC complaint.
"My girlfriend and I began receiving defamatory, harassing, threatening, and extortionary emails through an anonymous emailing service threatening to defame us both, and insinuating violence and severe emotional distress if my website was not taken down and surrendered at once," Bradshaw wrote in the FTC complaint, filed in June of 2010 and obtained earlier this month by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information Act request. "In these 'anonymous' emails, information was contained which was only known to myself, my girlfriend, Avid Life Media's Noel Biderman and our attorneys."
The lawsuit, which was never formally filed and is contained in the files released by Ashley Madison hackers, contains a multitude of allegations against former Avid Life Media CEO Noel Biderman and other executives at the company, many of which are backed up with email screenshots, telephone transcripts, and IP address records attached to the suit. The lawsuit makes claims of libel, false light, stalking, intentional infliction of severe emotional distress, false impersonation, and harassment.
The case never went to trial, and so the harassment claims made in the lawsuit were never disputed in court. When reached by Motherboard, Avid Life Media declined comment. Ronan Levy, the attorney who represented Avid Life at the time, said he could not speak to me because specifics were protected by attorney-client privilege. Bradshaw and his lawyer, Filippo Marchino, who also ended up being a plaintiff in the case, are forbidden from talking to the media based on the terms of the settlement. Biderman did not respond to an email sent to his personal email address.
"I'm going to do whatever I need to do to make you regret ever messing with me"
Avid Life Media paid Bradshaw, his girlfriend, and Marchino $70,000, according to a settlement document passed around internally at the company. A source close to the case told me that Bradshaw took the settlement because he feared that his girlfriend would lose her job as a result of the alleged harassment and also feared that some of the threats could eventually result in physical violence.
In 2010, Ashley Madison was the largest dating site focused on connecting married people who wanted to have affairs. AshleyMadisonSucks was beginning to gain traction online and was cited by several news organizations as a place where dissatisfied users made grievances against the service. The lawsuit suggests that Avid Life was willing to go to extreme lengths to silence its critics.
The lawsuit, which closely mirrors the FTC complaint obtained by Motherboard but includes more detail, alleges that Biderman and his colleagues:
Spoofed a "confession" email from Bradshaw to his girlfriend and vice-versa
The suit alleges that Ashley Madison executives created several fake email addresses, including one purporting to be Bradshaw's and one purporting to be his girlfriend's. One message, sent from an account called "Den.firstname.lastname@example.org" to his girlfriend's real email address, informed her she should "probably get tested for HIV" because he was cheating on her. It also noted that Ashley Madison was planning on setting up a website to destroy the reputation of Bradshaw, his girlfriend, and their mutual friends.
After Avid Life acquired AshleyMadisonSucks.com, it didn't shut down the website. Instead, it immediately changed the site's tone and used it to push users to AshleyMadison.com.
"I joined Ashley Madison to cheat on you, when I found out I couldn't find anyone on Ashley Madison to cheat on you with, I created AshleyMadisonSucks.com and cheated on you with other people through other ways," the email reads. "Your reputation is about to become the focus of a new website similar to AshleyMadisonSucks.com because I didn't want to just resolve this with them rationally, I wanted to make a complete fool out of myself because I thought I was smarter than them."
An email sent soon after to Bradshaw's real email address from an account made to look like his girlfriend's noted that "settling with [Ashley Madison] gets OUR LIVES back to NORMAL and its could be a little cash in our pocket to blow this weekend[sic]."
Screenshots of the emails are included in the complaint, however Motherboard couldn't independently confirm who set up the fake email accounts and who sent the messages. Marchino writes in the lawsuit that "the information contained in the emails was known solely by plaintiffs and defendants." Taken at face value, that means either Avid Life employees sent the emails, or Bradshaw sent them in an attempt to frame the company.
Created a fake Facebook profile to gather information that could be used to embarrass Bradshaw and his girlfriend.
The profile, "Sassie Jameson," friended Bradshaw and gathered a list of his friends. Bradshaw alleges that Avid Life then did online research on his friends and family in order to set up a blackmail website.
Created or had someone create a webpage specifically to blackmail Bradshaw, his girlfriend, and Bradshaw's lawyer.
The lawsuit says that IP addresses originating from the Avid Life offices were used to access information on several of Marchino's clients' personal and company websites. He alleges that the information was then used to further research his clients' personal connections to create a webpage that could be used to blackmail them.
The alleged blackmail site (which was hosted on www.contact-the-ceo.com, a site that allowed anyone to submit grievances against any company), as presented in the lawsuit, contains a list of threats aimed at dozens of the couple's friends, families, and coworkers. A message posted on the site starts, "[Bradshaw's girlfriend] is the dumb bitch that is dating Dennis Bradshaw," then threatens to dox, or publish the personal information of, dozens of Bradshaw's friends and family members if Bradshaw does not remove AshleyMadisonSucks.com. It contains the work information and phone numbers of some of these people. It also contains this passage, about Marchino's then-wife:
Threatened Bradshaw in phone calls and emails.
The lawsuit alleges that Bradshaw and Biderman had one telephone conversation, which is excerpted below. No recording of the conversation was attached; the lawsuit says that it had two eyewitnesses willing to testify to the transcript's veracity, but does not name those witnesses.
Bradshaw continued to post to AshleyMadisonSucks.com following this conversation, prompting Avid Life Media lawyer Ronan Levy to send a letter to Marchino demanding that Bradshaw stop updating his website immediately. (Levy has since left the company and, for what it's worth, does not list his former affiliation on his detailed LinkedIn profile.)
"If I do not have confirmation from you that all new content has been removed from the site, then negotiations are off and the next time we'll see you is in court," Levy wrote. "It is a dangerous game of chicken Dennis is playing."
Marchino eventually sent the Ashley Madison legal team a copy of the civil complaint used to source the above sections. Rather than take the case to court, it was settled for $75,000. As part of the terms of the deal, Ashley Madison took control of AshleyMadisonSucks.com in July of 2010. A source familiar with the lawsuit's negotiations told me that Bradshaw and his girlfriend wanted the matter to go away because his girlfriend had just taken a new job.
It seems unlikely that AshleyMadisonSucks.com represented any sort of existential threat for Avid Life Media. AshleyMadisonSucks was referenced in a Slate article and in several smaller, local news stories in 2010—the Slate article actually coincided with Avid Life's first communications with Bradshaw—but it hadn't invaded the public's consciousness.
Ashley Madison and Avid Life Media, however, were just beginning to take off in 2010. At the beginning of the year, there were rumblings that the company wanted to go public; news reports that came out during the course of the AshleyMadisonSucks saga suggested that the site had grown its usership by 79 percent between the middle of 2009 and the middle of 2010, with an increase of 291 percent among women who used the site (these stats came from Ashley Madison itself and are unverified but were promoted by numerous media outlets nonetheless). Biderman was profiled and interviewed a number of times, being alternately called both "The King of Infidelity" and a "pimp." It was not an ideal time to have a scandal.
After Avid Life acquired AshleyMadisonSucks.com, it didn't shut down the website. Instead, it immediately changed the site's tone and used it to push users to AshleyMadison.com. Internet Archive snapshots from immediately after the switchover show that old posts were edited: "David" became "John," and posts like "Ashley Madison Is a Scam" became "Is Ashley Madison a Scam? Are they a fraud?" New posts, submitted by "real users" of Ashley Madison, were either pro-Ashley Madison or, at worst, blamed hookup failures on themselves, not the service. Links to AshleyMadison.com were scattered throughout nearly every post in an attempt to improve the site's Google search ranking.
An email sent by Biderman in November of 2013 explains the reasoning behind not shutting the site down. "The 'negative' brand sites were not necessarily created by us but by others and in the enforcement of our brand we gained control of them," he wrote in an email sent to an attorney the site retained for another lawsuit. "Once we did we realized that they were 'ranking' well within Google and so rather than turn them off we began to utilize them for brand positioning." Two analytics emails sent within Avid Life Media noted that AshleyMadisonSucks.com had been "SEO optimized" in 2012.
The Ashley Madison documents released by hackers only contain emails from between 2012 and 2015, so much of what happened in 2010 is left undiscussed. An email that references the domain from 2012 suggests, however, that Avid Life had another reason for keeping the site live. It served to monitor anti-Ashley Madison sentiment. The company monitored the site's user submissions and emails—in one instance, the company became aware of and attempted to shut down (via a trademark infringement cease-and-desist letter) a Brazilian website dedicated to exposing Ashley Madison's bots thanks to the AshleyMadisonSucks submissions email.
Because terms of the settlement were kept secret, the public was never informed of the switchover, and news media, message boards, and would-be customers continued to look to AshleyMadisonSucks.com as a site being run by an anonymous, disgruntled Ashley Madison user. AshleyMadisonSucks.com was referred to as a site that "accuses [Ashley Madison] of exaggerating its ability to match cheats with one another" in a December 2010 Economist profile of the online dating scene.
AshleyMadisonSucks.com was taken offline in late 2013, according to an Internet Archive search. Avid Life did not discuss why the site was shut down in its internal correspondence. The site is still offline today.