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Rights and Responsibilities in the anonymous information age

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SapereAude
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I'm interested to see what opinions people have on this issue.

As an example I will use Yelp.

Yelp is an online review forum where one can review any form of service but it tends to focus on restaurants and bars.

People sign on to Yelp and post reviews. Yelps reviews show up prominently in interent searches of a business.

Those participating in Yelp can choose to use their real names but many to most choose to remain anonymous.

Amongst the business community Yelp is almost universally hated. There have been lawsuits for slander/libel. It is very common for people to create false names and write false negative reviews of former employers against whom they hold a grudge or even their competition. Negative things often include libelous issues such as claims of illegal activity, racial/sexual harassment & food poisoning.

Additionally there has been growing concern in the business community about the owners of Yelp using extortion to extract advertising revenue from business owners as well as free food and booze.

It has become common for busiensses to get a call aggressively demanding you to advertise. If you refuse they mention that if you advertise you will be able to get rid of some of your negative reviews and that all the positive ones will show first. If you refuse your positive reviews start to disappear and your ratings go down. Aside from the advertising angle they will also call and ask you to host Yelp functions. You provide the space and free booze and food. If you refuse same thing happens.. they start removing your positive reviews.

Having personally experienced this I am biased against the organization of course. When I refused to advertise with them several 5 star reviews of my business dropped off and my overall rating went down a star.

So I am interested in the opinions of people more capable of objectivity in this matter.

Yelp is a business and as such has a right to run it as they wish.

The people who make up Yelp have freedom of speech and therefore have a right to post their opinions.

So where and when do these freedoms end?

Obviously there are slander/libel laws but the courts have already ruled that Yelp as a business is a forum for content and is not liable for the content posted therein. The users that post the reviews can't be held liable because they are anonymous.

As to the extortion... we hit another grey area. Although print media will disclaim it it has long been practice for newspapers to give favourable press to their advertisers and ignore businesses that do not advertise. Somehow what Yelp is doing seems different... a newspaper cannot "take it back" or make previous good reviews disappear. Also, there is a known writer who can be held accountable for their words in print media.

I think beyond a doubt it can be said that what they are doing in unethical.

But my question is..should it be permitted?

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If they are extorting then that is an application of force and is punishable by law. Catch them in the act. Tape the conversation and take it to the police or a lawyer and put them out of business.

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Well something sure is fishy about that. They are capitalizing on presenting themselves as a place where just anybody pretty much will be able to speak out and give their honest assessments, but then they act to intentionally skew the picture by selectively deleting comments of certain types against some people who won't give them free stuff. This seems deceptive and misleading, to trade on a view of just giving forth what anybody who has been there may choose to say when you really won't do so for rather unrelated reasons. If it was stated outright and honestly that they take away some good reviews of people who won't give them free stuff, they probably wouldn't be getting the same amount of trust and use that they are getting and their business would be less successful. I don't know is this deception is enough to constitute fraud, but if nothing else you should try to get documentation from people of what they are doing an spread the word. Maybe send in an article to a newspaper or two about the subject along with the accounts of some victims and any hard evidence you can get, like recorded calls maybe.

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One thing is clear: if they are indeed manipulating the reviews against people who are refusing to advertise, and you can prove it, that is libel, and you can sue and win. But you'd have to prove something that's going on inside the company. I don't know if a tape of some rep threatening to do this would be enough to prompt a court order to review their "automatic" software. (I'm not a lawyer) But such a tape would definitely hurt their business if made public, since it would give the media way more to run with.

If they're merely helping along those who advertise, that's not libel, since they're not attacking anyone, just lying to the public about their methods. If they weren't lying, it would all be perfectly fine. I don't think the lie itself amounts to fraud, since there's no trade, it's just information that they're publishing on a free website. Lying is not fraud, broken or false contracts are.

One thing that's unclear (to me) is whether libel is properly a crime. Here's a thread I'm reading over myself, to help make up my mind:

http://forum.ObjectivismOnline.com/index.p...mp;#entry124609

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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Can you elaborate on why you are unsure whether or not it should be permitted? It is clearly entirely voluntary. I would never want to participate in it, though.

That's the grey area I am seeking opinions on.

1) it represents itself as an unbiased public forum for review but manipulates reviews to punish businesses that resist extortion

2) they allow anonymous, unsubstantiated libel/slander allegations of food poisoning, sexual harassment of employees, racism of staff are commonplace

3) they allow people to leave negative reviews of a business that have never even been patrons

Where the law touches this is the matter of intent. Saying false and harmful things about another with the intent to damage reputation is illegal.

So right there we have fraud, extortion and libel.

I personally don't intend to pursue any action against this, at this point whenever their reps call I just tell them to remove me from their call list and hang up.

I'm just curious as to the opinions of people who aren't as close to the issue as I am.

What happened to me personally is that after over a year of refusing to advertise a very agressive salesperson called (during the middle of my dinner rush I might add) and what it came down to was he said that I would be able to remove some negative reviews if I paid them and in addition links to my positive reviews would appear on my competitions' pages. I told him exactly what I thought of that practice, told him I did not want to receive further solicitations from their service. 3 days later 3 positive reviews had been taken down and my rating dropped one star. I'm not sure if it will continue to get worse or not but I know other owners who've had much worse happen.

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One thing that's unclear (to me) is whether libel is properly a crime. Here's a thread I'm reading over myself, to help make up my mind:

http://forum.ObjectivismOnline.com/index.p...mp;#entry124609

I've thought about that as well, thanks for the link.

DavidOdden has an excellent point about how if false defamation is punishable then false praise leading to damage or loss must be as well.

Where I think the line is pretty solid is when the damage or praise is referring to objective facts.

Lets say I review a restaurant...now I can say the food was awful or I can say the food was great. But that is mostly subjective. What I think is great you may think is awful and vise versa. Change that to claiming the restaurant gave me horrible food poisoning and I was out of work for three days now THAT I believe is a crime.

What we are talking about in the second case is a false accusation which I think is clearly not permitted by law.

I'm interested in the opinion of others on this point that Jake brought up as well, I think it is a good one.

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The question is, how does one review reviewers? What the world needs is "Metayelp" which writes reviews of review services (and there are plenty -- Ratemydoctor, Ratemyprofessor, Ratemymechanic, Amazonreviews blah blah blah). I find rating sites pretty useless unless there are very many reviews that say the same thing, or at least a couple of highly detailed reviews that made the same point. If there is actual chicanery involved in the reviews, that needs to be clearly documented and the chicanery-peddlars need to go the way of the National Enquirer and other unsavory information outlets. (Oops, that's right, they are still in business, sigh).

FYI, it is not a crime if you say that a restaurant gave you horrible food poisoning and you were out of work for three days. It would rise to the level of being civilly actionable so the owner could sue your ass, but it doesn't constitute a criminal act in the US.

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The question is, how does one review reviewers? What the world needs is "Metayelp" which writes reviews of review services (and there are plenty -- Ratemydoctor, Ratemyprofessor, Ratemymechanic, Amazonreviews blah blah blah). I find rating sites pretty useless unless there are very many reviews that say the same thing, or at least a couple of highly detailed reviews that made the same point. If there is actual chicanery involved in the reviews, that needs to be clearly documented and the chicanery-peddlars need to go the way of the National Enquirer and other unsavory information outlets. (Oops, that's right, they are still in business, sigh).

FYI, it is not a crime if you say that a restaurant gave you horrible food poisoning and you were out of work for three days. It would rise to the level of being civilly actionable so the owner could sue your ass, but it doesn't constitute a criminal act in the US.

It is my understanding that libel laws vary from state to state?

One can certainly get a cease and desist order in some instances which takes it somewhat outside of the realm of civil law does it not?

Once the cease order is ignored by the defendant they could be charged with contempt of court so doesn't this put some of these cases in a grey area between civil and criminal?

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I've thought about that as well, thanks for the link.

DavidOdden has an excellent point about how if false defamation is punishable then false praise leading to damage or loss must be as well.

Where I think the line is pretty solid is when the damage or praise is referring to objective facts.

Lets say I review a restaurant...now I can say the food was awful or I can say the food was great. But that is mostly subjective. What I think is great you may think is awful and vise versa. Change that to claiming the restaurant gave me horrible food poisoning and I was out of work for three days now THAT I believe is a crime.

What we are talking about in the second case is a false accusation which I think is clearly not permitted by law.

I'm interested in the opinion of others on this point that Jake brought up as well, I think it is a good one.

One problem with the internet (could apply to other media as well, actually) is that you have no way of gaging the reality of any of the posters. Good or bad reviews from basically anonymous sources are really meaningless. I know that generally, when there are a lot of reviews, probably most are authentic, but you don't know. Good reviews can just as easily be false as bad ones. Even if they are authentic, you don't know the standards of the reviewers.

Of course, extortion should be prosecuted, and would be in a society that upheld individual rights.

What is also an important issue, as you suggest, is the lack of personal responsibility we see nearly everywhere in our society. The internet just makes it more apparent. We see it on this forum. For example, some posters accuse others of being willing to steal and other morally wrong behavior, or at least having written about it, and then, when proved wrong, the accusor just walks away. If you are going to do things or say things, take responsibility. A person should take responsibility for their actions in any circumstance. To not do so on an Objectivist Forum is really missing the point.

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Once the cease order is ignored by the defendant they could be charged with contempt of court so doesn't this put some of these cases in a grey area between civil and criminal?
Yeah, it's sort of grey. Generally, a person cannot be imprisoned for an action except if they have been found guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of some prohibited act. An exception is that a judge can declare a person to be in contempt and stick them in the hoosegow for as long as they remain "in contempt". But this would be applicable only to a person who continued to disseminate the lie that they were sickened by a certain restaurant. The basic principle behind contempt is that you are only imprisoned as long as your are committing the contemptuous act (which would typically be failing to provide the required information or object). But there is such a thing as criminal indirect contempt of court, which requires a trial and the higher level of proof of a criminal charge.
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The internet moves fast. If Yelp is a corrupt organization, more and more people will stop using it. As people realize that the ratings are not valid, they'll look for more valid sources for ratings. I use Zagat and pay for their book and their iPhone app. I find the Zagat ratings to be accurate to my liking and I'm not aware of any dishonesty in their rating's process.

If you're certain of yelp's corruption I would encourage you to publicize it like this and in any other venue you wish. I looked at yelp a few times but stopped because I didn't generally agree with the ratings of places. It was a little while back, I'm not sure if they've gotten better or worse.

From a general principle, I would say that your business' appearance at all on Yelp is likely a net positive. However, if you feel your business is actually suffering net damages AND is the result of intentional acts by yelp, then I'd take the steps to determine if you can prove it and hold them responsible for those damages in court.

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QuoVadis, you are not alone. Your scenario is painful and shared by many. There are many sites similar to the one you describe (I am not necessarily adopting your opinions or statements as my own because you made statements of fact about yelp that I can not speak to, and would be libel if the yelp administrators could demonstrate to be false).

I am grieved by the fact that Section 230C or the Communications Decency act effectively grants federal immunity to the likes of yelps and ripoffreport as conduits of other peoples libel. Ironically their immunity comes under the heading of "Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material". I have written extensively on this. A brief description is here: www.rexxfield.com/abuseofintenetfreespeech.php

IMHO review sites that manipulate results for whatever reason should not be immune. This includes Google if their hypothetical "diversity algorithm" truly exists (I call it their "keep me humble algorithm")

There was an interesting case in France which is in diametric opposition to the US CDA where Google was recently found liable for suggesting libelous search suggestions, wherein the word "scam" was suggested as the first suggestion when entering a business name in the search field.

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