The Real Rip-Off Report

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Today, the Rip-Off Report seems old-fashioned next to even the simplest blog. It has none of the clean functionality that Google has perfected; it's a mad jumble, plagued with technical problems. More than half of New Times' searches on any given day ended in futility; the site lacks the technical capability to handle its own content. (Magedson says a long-awaited redesign should be online within the month.)

One reason for the tech problems is the site's massive volume: On top of the 225,000 initial complaints, the site has layer after layer of businesses' rebuttals and readers chiming in. And though it would probably increase the site's user-friendliness if posts of a certain age were deleted, Magedson doesn't like to get rid of anything. You can still get complaints dating back at least six years.

It doesn't help that the Rip-Off Report has a fairly low standard of relevance. An entire category has sprung up with people complaining about adulterous partners. At last count, it had 207 entries.

Magedson pays a team of stay-at-home moms to vet posts for obscenities and social security numbers. But beyond that, he admittedly finds few things too scurrilous for publication.

For example. Consider this post about a man who's identified by first and last name and hometown. The man is, "Lindsey" complains, "nothing but a loser. He steels [sic] from everybody including his own family. Not to mention he beats his own mother. . . . He spends all his time and money on drugs. No wonder he has no life."

Or, less personal but no less toxic, the Maryland hospital where nurses are alleged to "cut bodies open after they kill people" and steal organs. Or the Scottsdale communications company that's alleged to have "scammed millions of dollars from honest people."

For someone so smart, Magedson is curiously accepting of even the most off-the-wall allegations. He estimates that 98 percent of the site's complaints are true, which seems ridiculous after perusing numerous comments in which people accuse each other of everything from spreading sexually transmitted diseases to grand larceny.

"If you ask Ed the question, 'Ed, do you think there are phony reports?', of course there are going to be," he says. "'Are some of them exaggerated?' Probably so.

"But," he concludes, blithely, "if you're a business being complained about, you probably deserve what you're getting."

For business owners who Google themselves and are startled to discover they're actually scam artists, cheapskates, or even child abusers, the Rip-Off Report can be shocking. After all, if a newspaper printed such unsubstantiated allegations, it would be bankrupted in no time by lawyers with libel claims — some far from frivolous.

The Internet, as Magedson's victims soon learn, is different.

Newspapers are on the hook for libel if they merely publish a damaging untruth without proper vetting. So long as a story is about a private citizen, the standard is mere negligence: If a paper thinks something is true, but doesn't bother to verify, it can be held liable.

A Web site, however, can publish even those claims that writers know to be false: an ex-husband's rant that his saintly wife has herpes, an allegation that a hated city councilman is a pedophile. Forget mere negligence — online reports can be downright malicious.

For that, you can thank Congress, says Eric Goldman, an assistant professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the High Tech Law Institute. (And, oddly enough, you can thank porn, too.)

Before 1996, Goldman explains, Web sites were treated more like newspapers. If their operators edited or monitored content from their users, they could be considered a publisher. In a few cases, they were held responsible for publishing without verification.

But then came congressional concern about online porn. And Web operators argued that they were caught in a Catch-22: If they removed porn, they'd be on the hook for anything they left up that proved libelous.

So the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, attempted to restrict Internet porn — and, at the same time, give Web sites special immunity. Under the act, Goldman says, "you can be aware of bad content, do nothing about it, and still not be liable for it."

Ironically, the Supreme Court struck down the porn part of the law soon after it was passed. But the exemption for Internet publishers stands. The U.S. Supreme Court has shown zero interest in entertaining a challenge to it, Goldman says, much less overturning it.

Goldman believes Congress made a good decision. "It's very hard to put online service providers in the role of judge," he says. "If we asked online service providers to do this, they'd take the path of least resistance. They'd take the content down. And if they did that, we would see a chilling extinction of negative feedback about products and services in the marketplace."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske