Brian has posted a message on his website: http://www.briandunning.com/message.html. It explains a great deal, it’s the kind of honesty from Brian I was hoping for, and it tells me that eBay and the US government have treated him shabbily. With this new information and perspective, I think we can disregard what I said yesterday about it being “over”.
At least that’s my guess. Brian Dunning was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for defrauding eBay on August 4th, 2014. With Shawn Hogan getting seven months for defrauding ebay four times as much, I’m guessing the length of sentence is a bit of a surprise for Brian, but I say that without any inside knowledge. I’m sure the auto-posters will run for a while, and a bunch of Skeptoid episodes are probably in the can, but fifteen months is a pretty long time for a podcast to take a break. I think for all intents and purposes, Skeptoid is defunct.
Unlike some “skeptics” I did not read the news of Brian’s sentencing with glee. I did not read it with a lot of sadness either. I am not a friend of Brian’s, I rarely put people on pedestals, and truth be told, I’ve barely listened to Skeptoid for a year. Yesterday I noticed that I had canceled my automatic donation to Skeptoid sometime last year, though I don’t remember when. So I can safely say there is some natural distance these days between myself and Skeptoid/Brian Dunning.
In reviewing the gleeful reactions lately over Brian’s legal troubles, it’s not hard to see how clueless PZ Myers is to think Brian’s widget could have been running on PZ’s site, how asinine The Lousy Canuck’s leap to believe that Brian created a non-profit to hide his eBay earnings, and how little research Rebecca Watson does. Then you have the strange reactions of people dismayed that Brian asks for money to do Skeptoid, as if his personal wealth is some how connected to whether or not people should donate to him for work he does that they enjoy. If people had done the research, though, they would know that most of the money Brian earned is long gone, and has been for years. The whole eBay thing ended around the same time he started the Skeptoid podcast, and for most of Skeptoid’s existence, he’s been involved in some legal actions.
Another thing that has struck me is how so many progressives, who are normally skeptical of corporations, and who complain about the unfairness of the justice system, suddenly believe the words of a billion dollar corporation to the letter and praise the prosecutor as a beacon of skepticism. There is, in fact, much to be skeptical about and a lot that doesn’t make sense. I am not here to argue for Brian Dunning’s innocence, because I do not know that to be the case. I’m not here to judge his involvement or knowledge. I’m here to put critical thinking front and center and to illustrate why the case against Brian Dunning hasn’t made much sense to me from the beginning.
The state seems to want to make Brian Dunning out to be some uber clever hacker who defrauded eBay. This has made some of Brian’s critics assume more was involved than really was. Brian did not create some complicated, obfuscated bit of code to trick eBay. Brian’s code still lives in various archives online and if you check it out, it’s pretty clear that what Brian was doing was simple and obvious. There was no obfuscation whatsoever involved. It just wasn’t that sophisticated.
The case also includes very little background of the industry and how it worked. There were two companies involved, eBay and Commission Junction. CJ’s job is to handle affiliate programs and, this is key, fraud prevention. You don’t become a top affiliate with the numbers Brian was pulling and not get noticed. Someone would be looking at you within the first week. And if CJ didn’t catch on quick, you would think eBay would notice as well. In all the years I worked in the internet advertising industry, I’ve never heard of such activity going on for so long without it being detected somehow. It strains credulity to think that neither eBay or CJ knew what was going on.
By far, though, the biggest red flag for me is the way eBay describes the investigation. Somehow an eBay employee was working with the FBI for a year to catch Brian. They even set up a “sting” to catch him in the act. What makes this all so perplexing to me, is that this should have taken all of an afternoon to figure out. I’m serious. To figure out, as the state claims, that users were getting cookie-ed without visiting eBay takes only a little bit of code, and a few hours of waiting. I would hardly call that a sting. We had a name for it in the business: doing our job. It doesn’t take a year of investigation and a scary sounding sting to figure out a fraud method so simple we already solved it in the late 90’s. So, the state’s case, in addition to wanting to make Brian sound like a real hacker, plays up how they claim they caught him.
Really, none of this makes all that much sense. Does this exonerate Brian? Nope. I will not say he is innocent. I can only say that what eBay alleges almost certainly didn’t happen, and I say that based on fifteen years working in the advertising industry. My personal opinion is that people in eBay and CJ knew what was happening, were being compensated well because of the program, and then let Brian take the fall later. In that case, I don’t know who committed the fraud against who. I don’t know how much Brian might have known. My guess is that eBay itself would be on the hook for defrauding other affiliate marketers if people within eBay conspired to jack one affiliate’s numbers up. This is complete conjecture on my part, but even so, it is more believable than eBay’s current claims.
With all that, though, it’s time for Brian to come completely clean if he expects to ever have a future in skepticism. No talk about what his lawyers won’t let him say. No more vague statements. He will have to be more brutally honest with his audience and perhaps himself than he has ever been. Even with that, I think his chances of regaining a leadership role in skepticism to be pretty much nil. If I were him, I would completely open up to my audience, finish my sentence, and then slowly rejoin skepticism making amends where they might be needed. I do wish Brian and his family well. As an optimist and a human being, I believe people can learn from mistakes, be rehabilitated, and have a productive life.
I don’t know if this post comes off too forgiving, too hard, or naive. I hope at a minimum I’ve presented a different side to the story you’re not hearing almost anywhere in the skeptic movement.