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Telling the truth … for a price

It’s called the “Ripoff Report.” It purports to be a consumer advocacy website, where anyone aged 14 or older may file a completely uncorroborated, unsubstantiated report alleging anything about anyone. Per its terms of service, no information posted to Ripoff Report will be removed – not at the author’s request, and not even if the original poster himself believes his report was in error. What’s more, the website owners actively taunt users who believe they’ve been libeled.

“The First Amendment right to free speech includes the right to remain anonymous,” the website reads (although its version is in all-caps). “[Perhaps you realize per our assertions] that the law protects this website and, in most cases, does not allow you to sue the website’s operators for the materials published here by users of the site. What do you do now?”

The site owners go on to tell you that you’re free to sue the original poster directly for making false public statements about you. But does this help you? As there is nothing to stop a contributor to the site from posting a false, libelous and defamatory “report,” it would seem there’s nothing to prevent that person from using an alias, either.

Further, Ripoff Report proceeds from the assumption that outraged individuals will want to sue it and pre-emptively declares itself a neutral party. “[W]e don’t remove reports,” says the site. “We will not remove reports even when they are claimed to contain defamatory statements. We will not remove reports even if the original author asks us to do so. Also, contrary to what our critics would like [you] to believe, we will NOT remove reports for money. Don’t believe us? Just make us an offer and see how we respond.”

Consider the implications of this position: “Reports” posted to the Ripoff Report website are completely anonymous (or can be, if the author chooses not to disclose his or her identity). The site explicitly states that this anonymity is free speech and that it stands for the protection of this speech. No attempt to verify the content of allegations is made, and even if a user recants, Ripoff Report will not delete what even the author admits is not true. Despite the allegedly noble position from which Ripoff Report publishes uncorroborated, unsourced allegations of misconduct by other individuals or business entities, then, how is the site not knowingly perpetuating potential libel and defamation?

Ripoff Report claims it won’t accept your money to correct the problem, which makes sense, as this would open the site (one would think) to allegations of extortion. The average reader would be perplexed, then, to read of the great, new program offered by the site.

“In response to overwhelming demand for a cheaper, faster, and easier alternative to litigation,” says the website, “Ripoff Report recently launched a new program which we call V.I.P. Arbitration. This program allows anyone to dispute the accuracy of any facts in a report (because there’s no such thing as a false opinion, only facts can be disputed in our program, not opinions).”

This is, of itself, an interesting tack to take. There’s no such thing as a false opinion? Really? So if you are a dentist, and one of your patients posts an unsubstantiated and uncorroborated report alleging that you groped him or her during a dental visit, that opinion is neither true nor false, despite what you know to have happened and regardless of the existence of any evidence supporting or belying that claim? This is not legal language so much as it is moral sophistry – the justification of maintaining the pretense of neutrality while allowing such claims to remain unchallenged in the public eye.

“The process requires the complaining party to submit a basic Complaint form explaining their claim,” says the website of its arbitration process. “The Complaint is forwarded to the author of the report who is allowed to respond with any proof they have to back up their report. As would be true in court, the complaining party has the burden of proving that a statement is false. … Other than administering the program, Ripoff Report itself plays no role in deciding the cases submitted for arbitration. If the arbitrator finds that a factual statement in a report is false, that statement will be redacted (removed) from the report, though the report itself will not be removed.” [emphasis added]

Arbitration, then, won’t actually get your name taken off the site … yet the process costs you money. “Is the program free?” Ripoff Report asks itself. “Unfortunately, no – there is a cost for participating in the program which covers the arbitrator’s fees and our administrative costs, but the program is not expensive compared with other alternatives. While this may not be an ideal solution for everyone, it does give people one more option to consider for disputing reports without the huge cost and delay of litigation.”

If the claim that there is “no such thing as a false opinion” is troubling, so too is the “not expensive” fee for entering into arbitration. Ripoff Report charges you $2,000, USD, in exchange for the mere possibility that portions of a false report will be “redacted.”

Ripoff report is just one example among many of websites that publish “third party content” impugning others’ character or conduct while disclaiming any legal responsibility for it. Another (and much more abusive) example is Jerk.com, which has the audacity to do what Ripoff Report says it does not – trade money for removals, according to Gene Quinn. There are others.

The only response to such potential extortion is one of three options. We can pay lawyers to sue. (Ripoff Report allows users to donate to its legal fund.) We can tell ourselves we do not care about lies told about us online. Or we can destroy the credibility of such public scandal sites by making it known, just as publicly, what they do and why they do it. The latter course is probably the only truly workable one.