A WHOLE LOT OF DISSING GOING ON THE WEB
Blog sites provide anonymous posters the chance to cyber-smear their targets, and there’s little you can do about it.
By Mike Hughlett and Eric Benderroff
Tribune Staff Reporters
Terence Banich had been outed as a bad tipper, and he didn’t even know it.
He popped up on the cheapskate list at BitterWaitress.com, berated by a server at a Chicago restaurant for leaving a $3 tip on a $200 bill.
Informed on his tipping infamy, Banich said if he had left such a measly gratuity, it was a mistake, a misplaced decimal point, and he’s sorry for it.
But Banich, a lawyer, said he was not pleased that a waitress had lifted information from his credit card – his name – and posted it on the internet.
Banich had effectively been cyber-smeared, and he’s not alone.
As the Internet has grown, so have Web sites that allow ordinary people to post all sorts of reviews and opinions about customers, bosses and businesses.
You can gripe about your boss at JobSchmob.com, complain about Wal-Mart at the Consumerist.com or rail against a contractor’s shoddy work on Angie’s List.
For the most part, these sites are a good thing – more information leads to better choices – whether picking a place to work, to shop or to eat.
But a byproduct of this sort of democracy is the cybersmear, a critique run amok. It’s a nasty opinion posted on the Internet that can sully the reputation of a business in individual, sometimes through outright fibs.
And those who feel they’ve been defamed usually have little recourse. By law, Web sites like BitterWaitress are not treated as publishers. Instead, they are pipelines for the opinions of their readers and contributors.
Sites like Bitter Waitress have been on the Internet since the beginning, but now they reach more people than ever. That’s partly because the Web is becoming such a staple in people’s lives: 72 percent of all U.S. adults use it, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
It’s also because blogs and message boards have become so easy to create in the past few years.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer to get these things set up,” said Laura Gurak, director of the University of Minnesota’s Internet Studies Center.
Derek Gordon, marketing director at blog-tracking site Technorati, said it follows about 30 millions blogs worldwide.
The number of blogs tracked by Technorati has doubled in size every 5 ½ months, Gordon said.
“Before blogs, very few people had means to express their ideas,” he said. “Now, people have a distribution method.”
WAITER SERVES UP SITE
Chris Fehlinger began distributing restaurant servers’ opinions in 1999 when he started BitterWaitress. Now, try the word “waitress” into Google’s search engine, and Fehlinger’s site is the first you’ll see.
Fehlinger, a veteran New York City waiter, started the site as a newsletter. He added celebrity gossip, tidbits and servers about start’ tipping habits, and a section where waiters and waitresses could post their own “war stories” about managers and customers.
Those war stories, which are anonymous, range from reasoned complaints to wild rants. Individual restaurants aren’t frequently named, though some could be identified by details given.
Then there’s a BitterWaitress’ bad tipper database, which frequently drops makes of the famous and the not-at-all famous.
It has proved quite popular. There are 2,500 posting on it from across the country, and Fehlinger said he has 2,000 more bad-tip posts that he hasn’t had time to put up.
By posting names provided by anonymous sources, Internet sites can take what is mostly a positive thing – venting and even ranting – and turn it into something malicious, say some Internet observers.
“I think the blogosphere was born on ranting,” said Technorati’s Gordon. Still, he said, “the vast majority of the time, people will not name names. The vast majority of people are civil”.
John Grohol, a psychologist who studies online behavior, agreed. Venting is “therapeutic,” and the Internet provides a great outlet for it, said Grohol, who also runs a website called Psych Central.
“But if people are being called out by name, that can cross the line into slander or libel, and that’s a bad thing.”
Fehlinger said that if people named on BitterWaitress complain – courteously – that they’ve been wronged, he will remove the offending post.
Some Web sites have procedures in place to stop potentially abusive or defamatory posts.
For instance, Craigslist, one of the Web’s most visited sites, has a system in which its own users can flag what they believe are inappropriate or illegal posts. Such ads are then removed.
At Angie’s List, users reveal their names to the Web site’s operators, though their online reviews remaining anonymous.
The site grades contractors, from plumbers to roofers to electricians, on an “A” to “F” scale. Users must pay a fee and can write a review of an individual contractor only every six months.
Plus, “we have a team of people here to review the comments to make sure there’s nothing there out of the ordinary,” said Angie Hicks, who started the list from Columbus, Ohio, 11 years ago.
Even if lies slip through the cracks of a review or rant site, the site’s operator has a strong legal shield: The Communications Decency Act. It says providers of an “interactive computer service” shall not be treated as publishers of information; therefore, they aren’t held liable for the objectionable material posted by their users.
Thus, if a blogger personally publishes something defamatory on their Web site, they can be held liable. But if that information is posted on a message board or online forum, they can’t.
Fehlinger said he often gets legal threats from people or businesses named on BitterWaitress.
“They say, ‘I’ll sue you for defamation of character.’ I say, ‘Try a different medium, sorry.’”
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