19 April 2021

The New York Times: “A Vast Web of Vengeance”

Mr. Babcock was sure there was a way to have lies about him wiped from the internet. Many of the slanderous posts appeared on a website called Ripoff Report, which describes itself as a forum for exposing “complaints, reviews, scams, lawsuits, frauds”. (Its tagline: “consumers educating consumers”.)

He started clicking around and eventually found a part of the site where Ripoff Report offered “arbitration services”, which cost up to $2,000, to get rid of “substantially false” information. That sounded like extortion; Mr. Babcock wasn’t about to pay to have lies removed.

Ripoff Report is one of hundreds of “complaint sites” — others include She’s a Homewrecker, Cheaterbot and Deadbeats Exposed — that let people anonymously expose an unreliable handyman, a cheating ex, a sexual predator.

But there is no fact-checking. The sites often charge money to take down posts, even defamatory ones. And there is limited accountability. Ripoff Report, like the others, notes on its site that, thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, it isn’t responsible for what its users post.

Kashmir Hill

A prime example of what went wrong with the Internet: under the protection of US laws and their absolutist interpretation of free speech, anyone from ordinary people with a grudge to organized groups spreading propaganda and misinformation can blatantly lie with impunity. The people getting hurt have few tools to fight back: a drawn out legal fight in the US… which isn’t even an option outside the US, because foreign courts generally can’t force an American website to remove content. This goes back to the issue that Americans simply assume that their rules must apply to everyone else, as in the recent debate about the Australian news legislation impacting Google and Facebook.

Gary M. Caplan, a lawyer in Toronto
Gary M. Caplan, a lawyer in Toronto, represents dozens of people who have sued Ms. Atas for defamation. The New York Times

The case above seems like the perfect argument for ‘the right to be forgotten’, introduced in the EU some years ago and, naturally, vilified in the American press and by tech giants as an unacceptable intrusion on the ‘open web’. But even under this EU legislation, a recent ruling reaffirmed that Google only needs to remove search results in Europe following a data removal request, so false claims can live on and continue to cause damage.

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