The interactive Internet fosters debate over rights vs. responsibilities

A spate of lawsuits, a book and concern over anonymous Internet postings are prompting a debate over the balance between the rights and responsibilities of free speech, a San Francisco Chronicle story says. – DR

Web 2.0 defamation lawsuits multiply
Deborah Gage, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009

(02-08) 17:04 PST — The Web 2.0 movement, which ushered in an interactive Internet, sought to put power in the hands of the people by tapping the so-called wisdom of the crowds to change the world – and to keep such a digital democracy in check.

A decade later, as defamation lawsuits have begun to mount, some are questioning the wisdom of the crowds, and wondering if it hasn’t turned into mob rule.

“I don’t know why this has taken so long,” said Andrew Keen, author of a controversial book, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.” “The Internet is a culture of rights rather than responsibilities. We have no coherent theory of digital responsibility. The issue has broken through, broken out of Silicon Valley – now it affects real people with real reputations to defend.”

Just last week, Juicy Campus – a Web site that was banned from some colleges for its postings of vicious anonymous gossip – abruptly shut down, its traffic redirected to a site called College Anonymous Confession Board, whose owner said he hosts “a higher level of discourse.”

Juicy Campus was losing ad revenue because of the bad economy, founder Matt Ivester said in a blog post, but the site also had been scrutinized by several state attorneys general and had some of its posters sued last year by a University of Delaware student who wanted gossip about herself removed from the site. She later dropped the claims. Ivester could not be reached for comment.

Yelp at center of debate

Meanwhile, the review site Yelp, based in San Francisco, has found itself in the crosshairs of the free e-speech debate.

Yvonne Wong, a pediatric dentist in Foster City, recently sued Los Altos couple Tai Jing and Jia Ma after they criticized her treatment of their son in a posting on Yelp. They questioned her use of laughing gas and said they were angry she had used fillings containing mercury.

Wong’s lawyer, Marc TerBeek of Oakland, said the review is false, and Yelp has since taken it down.

TerBeek initially included Yelp in the lawsuit, but later removed the site from the filing because he realized that under current federal law governing speech on the Internet, Web sites themselves are greatly protected from being held responsible for users’ comments.

Legal scholars have started to ask whether that law – the Communications Decency Act – should be modified, on the grounds that it allows too much irresponsible speech.

“We may put our photos on Flicker and our e-mail on Google and our personal experiences on Facebook,” said Brewster Kahle, who founded the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library in San Francisco. “But who’s responsible for this content? If you want things to go away, does it really?”

The number of people getting sued over online speech, although small, is rising sharply, according to statistics from the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Civil lawsuits nearly doubled in 2006 and rose again in 2007 by another 68 percent. Data for 2008 are not available, but more cases filed during these years are being uncovered every day, said Sam Bayard, the project’s assistant director.

Defamation claims

Most of the lawsuits claim defamation – false statements of fact that tend to hurt someone’s reputation – and involve content published on some of the Web’s biggest sites: Google, Yahoo, Craigslist and others.

Californians who get sued over something they’ve posted online are protected by a state anti-SLAPP law (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). While the law does not permit libel, it does protect people who speak out on matters of public interest, including protection of consumers, said Mark Goldowitz, an attorney who founded the California anti-SLAPP Project in Berkeley.

Goldowitz, who represents the defendants in Wong’s suit, said he’s asked that the suit be dismissed. He said dentists and other professionals are especially thin-skinned about online reviews and are prone to sue, even though they are finding that lawsuits are not the best way to resolve these disputes.

Consider Steven Biegel, a San Francisco chiropractor who recently settled a suit against a former patient, Christopher Norberg, after Norberg used Yelp to criticize Biegel’s billing practices. Biegel’s Yelp page has since been littered with negative comments about his practice and about his decision to sue Norberg from people he said he’s never treated.

“It’s called flaming,” Biegel said, “bombarding someone with negativity. It’s an unfortunate chink in the system.”

He said he hasn’t talked to Yelp about the bad reviews, although they bother him, because he figures there’s nothing he can do. He expects to drop his Yelp sponsorship.

A Yelp spokeswoman said Yelp has automated software that removes untrustworthy reviews, and that business owners can also flag these reviews and ask Yelp to take them down.

Concerned over the direction the free-wheeling Web has taken, some site owners are tightening their rules on what they will allow online.

OpenTable in San Francisco, a site that takes reservations for local restaurants, started publishing reviews of the establishments in September. But the reviews must be current, and only diners who have actually eaten at a restaurant are allowed to write about it, said Scott Jampol, OpenTable’s senior director of marketing. That’s to prevent both diners and restaurant owners from trying to game the system.

“It shouldn’t be the wild, wild West out there,” Jampol said.

Real names required

Angie’s List, a subscription service that lets people review local businesses, requires reviewers to use their real names and has started allowing businesses to respond to reviews.

“I think it’s going to be more and more complicated to decipher who you can trust,” said Andy Chen, the CEO of Buzzillions, a Web site in San Francisco that aggregates reviews of hundreds of consumer products written by people who are required to use the products first. “There will be tons of experimentation, and you’ll start to see the winning models.”

Advocates of unfettered speech, like Bayard, oppose changes in the Communications Decency Act because Web site operators might feel forced to take content down, and that could harm “a lively public debate.”