In Response to Theo

So, just a short recap of my partner Theo Levine’s comment for all my many readers:

What I basically got from Theo’s post was that it’s no longer acceptable to treat websites like Yelp as subject to different rules than such organizations as newspapers and other print media that present claims of fact to their readers.  Theo suggested that false statements on the Internet should be subject to the same standard as false statements off the Internet–if it would be libel in print, it should be libel in cyberspace.  I think there are a couple of Theo’s assertions that I can agree with, some that I cannot.

First, that websites like Yelp are considered to be indistinguishable from newspapers, on the grounds that those who peruse Yelp will treat the content on the website with the same degree of respect and credibility that they would view print media.  While I can’t speak for how users view Yelp’s credibility, I think it is possible to infer that, given the nature of the website, we can say that it is not, in fact, indistinguishable from a newspaper.  Newspapers are manned by professionals, individuals who have been trained to report accurately, to publish the facts, and yes, to avoid libel.  Then there are websites like Yelp, who rely on user-generated content to provide their services.  Their users are, by and large, not reporters, not looking out for what may or may not be libel, and certainly not viewed as highly credible.  Anyone can write a review on Yelp, just as anyone can read one, and that democratic aspect means that, in at least one crucial aspect, Yelp is not at all like a newspaper.  The people writing for it probably have a very limited conception of libel–they’re just writing about their experiences, good or bad (unless they’re malicious and out to destroy someone’s reputation, I suppose).  But given the demographics of Yelp’s user base, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to classify a website and a newspaper in the same group of entities.

Putting aside the classification debate, I do think that Theo’s correct in saying that “It was not Perez’ duty to ruin another person’s career without any proof of her insinuations.” I don’t think it’s right or just for people to be able to publish false statements online with impunity, especially given the permanent nature of the Web–things tend to stick around, years after you thought they were gone.  And yet, at the same time, I worry what will occur if we decide that the solution to combating false statements is to allow for each person who writes a potentially false statement on a blog or a review site or a comment to be sued for libel by a person who didn’t quite like what they were saying.  In the case of Perez, perhaps the contractor was justified in requesting that her review be taken down; if he didn’t, after all, do what she said he did, then she had no moral justification for putting it up there.

And yet I wonder what will happen if the court’s decide in favor of the contractor.  Then, it seems to me like the precedent set would be to declare all online comments fair game, if they contained a potentially libelous statement of fact.  As we saw in Perez’s case, the line between opinion and fact is seldom easily seen.  If every online commenter who wrote a bad review of McDonald’s knew that they could potentially be facing a libel suit for that review, how many reviews would there actually be?  We’ve already seen the first inklings of a chilling effect with Perez’s case: some of the comments of negative reviewers of the contractor say things like “It makes me almost nervous to post this negative review.”   Already, people are getting scared, and if people get scared they start to self-censor.  If Yelp ends up as a website like the kind Theo suggests: ” she should have said whatever she wanted on yelp as long as it was an opinion and not spuriously presented as a fact,” how useful is such a website going to be?  If users aren’t allowed to present facts to back-up opinions without fear of being sued over those statements, how will such reviews, devoid of any more substance than “I didn’t like this restaurant, but I can’t specific examples for why I didn’t like it”, be of any use at all?  And think of how many other sites rely on user-generated statements–Amazon, for one.  I worry that if we explicitly say: online comments are fair game for libel, we risk drastically chilling such comments and hobbling the usefulness of such input overall.  At the same time, I worry about how to address malicious comments, and would welcome any solutions put forward.

1 Comment »

  1. Roof MA

    December 16, 2012 @ 12:37 am

    1

    Print media is getting lower and the internet is getting much bigger. Every year the yellow book gets smaller too.

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