MTV "hack" backfires

MTV Online "defaces" its own site as a publicity stunt, but it is criticized for using the same initials as a notorious hacker.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
3 min read
When Netizens craving music industry skinny visited MTV Online last week, they were not greeted with the standard navigation menu, but instead with a crudely scribbled message: "JF was here."

Immediately, many assumed what appeared to be the obvious: MTV Online was hacked. The page, after all, had all the hallmarks of a typical hack--the MTV home page was darkened, the "hacker" message was prominently featured, and a small link to MTV's actual page was included at the bottom.

Furthermore, the MTV Online logo on the upper right-hand side of the home page's screen was defaced and an actual MTV disclaimer stated that MTV was "sorry for the inconvenience" and "working on legally clearing this off the site."

But despite appearances, there was no hack. MTV itself changed the page as part of an elaborate campaign to promote an online fictional character named "Johnny Fame," who is set to become MTV Online's "roving reporter" during tomorrow night's MTV Music Video Awards.

The confusion by Web users was further compounded by the name MTV chose to use for its publicity stunt: While Johnny Fame might sound like a fairly benign name, his initials, which MTV used to "deface" its own page, is also the moniker for a member of an international group of young hackers called Milw0rm.

The group gained notoriety last June when members gained access into India's Bhabha Atomic Research Center and downloaded 5 MB of information as a protest against the country's nuclear testing program.

In July, Milw0rm also made news when it reportedly broke into the database of Web page hosting company EasySpace and redirected more than 300 sites to an antinuclear message with an apocalyptic mushroom cloud backdrop.

When hacker news site AntiOnline heard about the MTV "hack," it quickly discovered that the JF in question was not the nuclear proliferation protester from Milw0rm, but the fictional MTV character.

John Vranesevich, founder of AntiOnline, was not amused.

"I think it screams of bad ethics," said Vranesevich, who has since posted a harsh criticism of MTV's publicity stunt on his Web site.

Vranesevich said that the stunt, which he called a phony hack, was a glorification of a criminal act, and was setting a bad example for teenagers by glamorizing the rebellious nature of hackers.

"Pretending to hack your own sites is one thing, but actually trying to pin it on a high-profile individual is a whole other thing," said Vranesevich. "I think it downplays the seriousness of the things he's done. Here's a guy who broke into a nuclear research site."

MTV, for its part, said it only wanted to find a creative way of promoting the character that it plans to use for its awards ceremony.

"We wanted to take an unorthodox approach to how we covered celebrities and the event," said Caroline Mockridge, an MTV spokeswoman. "And we wanted to introduce him to our MTV online audience in a dramatic and medium-appropriate way."

The promotion is another example of the way many companies charting into the Internet have adopted previously underground Web culture to promote their products or programs. The more notable examples also have been entertainment oriented.

In May 1997, Web developers accused Universal Pictures of engaging in a publicity stunt when the dinosaur insignia for the film Lost World was replaced with a cuddly duck on its Web site.

Universal maintained that it had been hacked, but many observers were skeptical.

MTV has also gone to great lengths to promote the stunt. Interspersed throughout MTV Online, ad banners read "For a good time?212-846-2598," in JF's signature scrawl, promoting a phone number that leads to a message by the fictional character.

When asked about whether the site would continue to promote Fame on its home page, Mockridge said MTV is "having his presence manifest itself on our site in a lot of ways."