The last time FlightSimLabs made news outside of the insular community of high-end flight simulator fans, it was for some invasive password-extractor malware included with a recent add-on package as an ostensible “anti-piracy” measure. Today, the company is again making waves for what many see as overzealous legal threats in response to legitimate discussion of the company.
Today’s controversy begins with a Reddit thread that noted FlightSimLabs’ A320 add-on installing “cmdhost.exe” files in the “system32” and “SysWOW64” folders inside the Windows directory. The strange filename and location—which seems designed to closely match those of actual Windows system files—made some Reddit users suspicious, especially given FlightSimLabs history of undisclosed installations.
FlightSimLabs responded on Facebook last Thursday by saying that the files came from third-party e-commerce service eSellerate and were designed to “reduce the number of product activation issues people were having.” This system has been acknowledged in the FlightSimLabs forums in the past, and it apparently passes all major antivirus checks.
Legal threats always lessen attention, right?
The “controversy” over these files might well have died down after that response. But then FlightSimLabs’ Simon Kelsey sent a message to the moderators of the flightsim subreddit, gently reminding them of “Reddit’s obligation as a publisher… to ensure that any libelous content is taken down as soon as you become aware of it.”
While ostensibly welcoming “robust fair comment and opinion,” the message also warns that “ANY suggestion that our current or future products pose any threat to users is absolutely false and libelous.” That warning extends to the company’s previous password-extractor controversy, with Kelsey writing, “ANY suggestion that any user’s data was compromised during the events of February is entirely false and therefore libelous.”
“I would hate for lawyers to have to get involved in this, and I trust that you will take appropriate steps to ensure that no such libel is posted,” Kelsey concludes. A follow-up message from Kelsey reiterated the same points and noted that FlightSimLabs has reported specific comments and demanded they be removed as libelous.
The moderators in question show no sign of giving in to FlightSimLabs’ demands. In an open letter to the company and the community, the moderators say that “removing content you disagree with is simply not within our purview,” and they called out FlightSimLabs for “attempted censorship on our subreddit.”
Threats of legal action, the moderators argue, “generate a feeling that it is unsafe for people to express their opinions or participate in discussion that is critical of your company.” The moderators also cite defenses including “truth, opinion, and public interest of general information” as potentially protecting the posts in question from a legal definition of libel.
Furthermore, the moderators say FlightSimLabs has been abusing the report system and possibly manipulating post voting with new sockpuppet accounts. FlightSimLabs founder Lefteris Kalamaras denied those accusations, saying the company has “never directed any individuals to create Reddit accounts, let alone for the purposes of vote manipulation or abuse of the Reddit post reporting system.”
Digging in and backing off
Initially, FlightSimLabs didn’t seem to budge from its position. In a lengthy reply post on Reddit, Kelsey argues that the company is not looking for wholesale “censorship” of the entire thread and only wants “very specific posts which contained clearly defamatory claims removed.” While understanding that “accountability is a difficult thing to deal with in an anonymized social media culture,” Kelsey argues that “we are and should be accountable for what we post.”
“If you’re confident that you could prove in a court of law that what you say is grounded in truth—say it,” he writes. “If you’re not confident of that, then perhaps ask yourself the question why you are posting it at all.”
While acknowledging that at least one of his messages to Reddit moderators could be considered “aggressive,” Kelsey also notes that “I see plenty of aggression here, too.” And while Redditors sharing opinions or honestly held beliefs about the FlightSimLabs situation is fine, Kelsey argues the mods are “permitting some clearly ungrounded and libellous comments to be made, [and] they are actually unwittingly facilitating the spread of misinformation and (much as I hate the term) ‘fake news’.”
All that said, Kalamaras told Ars Technica in response to a request for comment that “Kelsey spoke out of turn when using the words ‘legal action'” in his response. “There was never any intention to seek action against Reddit… We understand now that the moderators regarded our emails as a threat to them, but that was not and could never be our intention obviously… We’re very unhappy that Simon’s emails to Reddit were taken in the wrong context, as his efforts were always to protect our company image and that didn’t go as planned.”
“The point we were always trying to make (and will continue to do so) is that we always welcome freedom of speech (even by people who choose to remain anonymous for their own purposes) and all forms of criticism,” Kalamaras continued. “But we have to be able to protect ourselves against defamatory comments whose purpose is clearly to misguide potential customers and hurt our company.”
Kalamaras tells Ars that Kelsey was merely trying to bring specific, defamatory comments to the moderators’ attention through the site’s reporting system and that only four of the 30 comments posted to the thread at the time were ones the company considers “libelous.” Those comments, he says, were “designed to misguide and misdirect current and prospective customers into believing there was something [illicit] behind our product license activation mechanism, by spreading lies and misinformation.”
Whether legal threats are necessary or not, Kalamaras said he feels “there should be some way companies in our situation should be able to get assistance from Reddit when anonymous individuals hide behind this anonymity and go unchecked. We hope that, next time, we can work with the moderators together, in the spirit that they will provide this assistance to us.”