FindLaw columnistEric Sinrodwrites regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the Internet.
By now, most of us have grown accustomed to rating products on Amazon or services on Yelp, one to five stars. You might like knowing that the book you are thinking of buying on Amazon has been overwhelming rated five stars with many positive substantive reviews. And it might be helpful to learn that you probably should avoid a restaurant you were considering when most Yelp postings give only one or two stars with comments that tell you explicitly why you should go elsewhere. BUT . . .
How about websites that seek to review human beings in the same fashion as sites that address products and services???
Well, go no further. Coming this fall is an app called Peeple. The mission of Peeple, as stated on its site, is to provide "an app that allows you to rate and comment about the people you interact with in your daily lives on the following three categories: personal, professional, and dating." The purpose of such ratings and comments supposedly is to "enhance your online reputation for access to better quality networks, top job opportunities, and promote more informed decision making about people."
Wait, what? This is all about enhancement? Given that a person can receive one to five stars and comments about such star ratings, it is not hard to imagine that someone who receives a single star with comments justifying such a low rating will not find her reputation enhanced.
There certainly is room for mischief and potential liability here. Imagine a scenario in which a co-worker, an ex-"friend" or an ex-lover provides a one star rating with very negative comments about another person. If Peeple were to become the litmus test to assess human beings, that one star rating and those negative comments could cause significant reputation damage and other harm to the reviewed person. And if the negative comments backing up the one star rating were false, there could be potential defamation liability for the reviewer.
The mischief could continue in other forms -- such as bullying, with concerted efforts to round up negative star ratings and negative comments to blackball a victim. There could be popularity contests, with people seeking to attract as many positive ratings and reviews for themselves.
Typically, Peeple, as an Internet service provider, would have immunity for the postings of others on its site, pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. However, to the extent Peeple becomes actively involved in facilitating and determining the speech to show up on its site, with editorial discretion, it is conceivable that Peeple could see its immunity diminish.
In addition, we already live in a world that can be dehumanizing. We have grown up with grades, test results, trophies, ribbons, rankings, and job titles. And now, if your essence, your self, is summed up in a one to five star rating -- well, you have been boiled down to one number to the point of possibly eviscerating who you really are as a full person.
Peeple suggests that its site should prevent online bullying because it requires users to be over the age of 21, to have a Facebook account, and to provide a true cell phone number. Still, it is not clear exactly how that would prevent all forms of bullying. This simply prevents anonymous reviews, but while that could help, some users still could engage in bullying tactics overtly or behind the scenes.
Users apparently are to be provided 48 hours to dispute negative reviews and ratings, and inaccurate reviews can be tagged for removal. But how Peeple will decide what to take off and leave on the site after a dispute is registered or a review is tagged is not clear. And again, the more Peeple gets involved to the point of editorial discretion, it could lose its CDA Section 230 immunity.
So, all this being said, how many stars do you give to Peeple?
Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him email@example.com Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.