The Real Rip-Off Report

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And so Web publishers today have the freedom to publish real, uncensored customer reports — and, while they're at it, to publish false information.

This is not just true of Ed Magedson.

Take, say, America Online. After the Oklahoma City bombings, a guy named Kenneth Zeran was shocked to see that someone smeared him all over AOL message boards, claiming that he was selling tee shirts glorifying the bombings. The messages included his telephone number.

When radio stations picked up on the story, Goldman says, Zeran started receiving a dozen nasty phone calls a day. Hard to blame the guy for suing.

"If you wanted a sympathetic plaintiff, you got him," Goldman says. "This guy got screwed." But the court was emphatic, Goldman says: AOL was not responsible.

"And since then, we've had three dozen cases, all of them saying Zeran was right," Goldman says. "The person who wrote the words is liable. The online service is not."

There's one good reason the darker corners of the Internet are so nuts: because they can be. And the legal immunity granted to online publishers also explains the continued existence of the Rip-Off Report.

Companies suing Magedson for libel all learn, soon enough, that the law isn't on their side. It may irritate them, or even hurt their businesses and reputations, but they simply can't force him to take down even the nastiest posts.

"It's extremely frustrating for a company to have their number-one search result be a Rip-Off Report," explains Magedson's attorney, Maria Crimi Speth. "And because it's legal, and because the posts are often anonymous, they have no one to take it out on but Ed."

Magedson says he's spent at least $1 million on legal bills. Judging by the volume of suits he's fought — and the size of the case files — he's not exaggerating.

But for Magedson, the blowback he gets is clearly a great part of the fun.

During his interview at Chompie's, he's interrupted when one of his four cell phones starts ringing. (All have numbers ending in 4357, he notes, which spells "HELP.") To his delight, it's a business owner calling to ask him to remove a report on the Web site.

It's an exercise bound to end in frustration for the business owner, but Ed Magedson is enjoying himself immensely.

First he explains that he can't take down any report, even if it's demonstrably false. Then he asks the guy to send him an e-mail.

And then he's off on a 10-minute monologue. Since 2000, he tells the man, more than 800 businesses have called to thank him. Several companies have been so grateful for his Web site, he says, that they've sent him money at Christmas.

"Let me just say, we're all going to be blogged," he is saying. "Right or wrong, good or bad, we're all going to be blogged today. Um, if you're not, your children definitely will be. And if they even mention something on some blog somewhere, your last name will come up when you're doing a Google search . . .

"If you drive too fast going down the street in your neighborhood, some neighbor's going to blog you and say, 'That dirty SOB, he drives too fast going down the street, and he should learn how to drive.' . . . It's just the way our system is today. Everything's changed."

At the end of the call, Magedson notes, optimistically, that "the truth will set you free." But he makes no offer to investigate the truth of the report, or take it down if it's phony.

The companies that sued Magedson for libel, despite the Communications Decency Act, initially seemed surprised to learn they didn't have much of a case.

But the word is getting out, and lawyers who've challenged the Rip-Off Report lately have made stronger legal claims. They allege that Magedson isn't just passively posting the information. He writes reports, or uses surrogates to do it, they say.

They claim he also writes headlines, and that it's the headlines that are libelous.

Magedson denies those claims emphatically. But he can't deny the site reflects his unique obsessions — and that he tends to play up certain reports based on his personal preferences.

Even today, the City of Mesa is listed as one of the report's "Top Rip-Offs," with a link to Magedson's tale of swap-meet woe.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske