Commentary

Yelp-For-People App Raises Questions

On Wednesday, the Washington Postintroduced the world to the forthcoming app Peeple, which will let people publicly post ratings about other people.

Since then, the concept of a Yelp-for-people has proven almost universally unpopular with observers, who are warning that Peeple will inevitably lead to abuse.

So far much remains unknown about the app -- including whether it's even real. Snopes.com suggests the developers might be pulling an elaborate hoax, but the developers denied that to New York Magazine.

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Peeple reportedly will allow people to rate others by giving them one to five stars, and also leaving comments. Reviewers must have a Facebook account, and must post under their real names.

Peeple intends to send a text message to the person being reviewed, inviting him or her to join the service.

Review subjects won't be able to see the messages unless they join. If they do so, they'll be able to contest negative posts -- meaning posts with fewer than three stars -- but won't necessarily be able to get them removed. On the other hand, if they don't join, they'll never see the posts, but the ones with less than three stars won't be made public.

There are many reasons to question this model, not least of which is that the number of stars someone gives in a review might not be the most accurate guide to whether it will be perceived by others as positive.

Regardless, if the app actually launches, it probably won't take long before the company is hauled into court.

"#Peeple: if the idea is to create a company that will generate tons of lawsuits, then bravo," well-known privacy attorney Jay Edelson tweeted yesterday. Edelson has brought class-action lawsuits against a host of Silicon Valley companies, including Facebook, Netflix and Google.

What could Peeple be sued for?

"It's hard to even know where to begin," Edelson tells MediaPost. One possibility flagged by Edelson is that the company will have to fend off suits by people who say they were defamed by users. "If it gets out there, and is used widely, it is going to be used for cyberbullying and it is going to be used to defame people. There will be an incredible amount of litigation surrounding that," he predicts.

He adds that whether Peeple is held responsible could depend on how involved it is in helping to create objectionable content.

Typically, Web companies that serve as intermediaries are immune from defamation lawsuits, thanks to the federal Communications Decency Act. That law provides that companies that provide platforms for users aren't responsible for the content people post.

The Communications Decency Act is what's allowed other review sites, like Yelp, to flourish. Even Yelp, however, has faced lawsuits. The company is large enough that it's able to hire lawyers to fight off those cases; Peeple might not be in the same position.

What's more, some judges have ruled that the Communications Decency Act doesn't apply if Web sites "develop" content, as opposed to merely hosting it.

Yet merely offering a platform where people can critique others shouldn't in itself "constitute 'development' of third party content," says Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman.

He adds that without knowing more details about Peeple's implementation, it's hard to say whether potential litigants would have a basis to support an allegation that the company developed the reviews.

Separate from questions about defamation and bullying, the app could face lawsuits accusing it of violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by using an automated dialer to send unsolicited text messages to review subjects.

The Federal Communications Commission recently tightened that law by ruling that consumers whose names appear in other people's contacts lists don't consent to receive automated texts.

At this point, it's way too early to know whether those legal theories will gain traction in court -- assuming that the app is genuine.

For their part, the developers insist that they will move forward with the app's release next month.

"We are bold innovators and sending big waves into motion and we will not apologize for that because we love you enough to give you this gift," they write on the app's Web page.

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