When a Washington D.C. homeowner became disgruntled with a contractor who turned a remodel into a costly nightmare, she posted a complaint on a review site called Angie’s List. As Washington Post Metro columnist John Kelly chronicles in a recent post, it wasn’t long before the contractor caught wind of his negative review. The retaliation? A $6 million lawsuit against the homeowner.
Kelly’s column notes that the contractor wanted to sue Angie’s List, but that his lawyer told him it was protected. The statute most likely being referenced is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which essentially protects Web publishers from comments posted by users on their sites.
But the negative impact for review sites as a result of this sort of incident is exactly what concerns Bob Nicholson, vice president of marketing and business development for Ratingz.net, a company whose umbrella of review and ratings sites includes RateMyProfessors.com, RateMDs.com and RealEstateRatingz.com.
Nicholson says the company’s sites continually receive threatening phone calls and letters in reaction to the negative reviews garnered by its members.
Armed with marketing budget and media contacts, Nicholson says professionals can take an aggressive stance against review and ratings sites. That’s why he’s spearheading an effort to organize these sites by forming a trade association for ratings and reviews websites.
OJR spoke to Nicholson about the legal issues and cases brought against the publishers of these sites, the need for codes of conduct and why ratings sites deserve a positive spin in the press.
Online Journalism Review: Comments and ratings posted on review sites are usually anonymous. Is that crucial to a successful review site?
Bob Nicholson: People are hesitant to share their opinions precisely because of retributions, so I think it’s important for people to share their opinions with some confidence that they’re not going to be sued for what they say.
OJR: To play devil’s advocate, if people are saying that something that’s true, then why be afraid to put a name behind it?
Nicholson: In our system of justice, you can be accused of anything. Even if your defense in court is the truth, being sued can still cost thousands of dollars in legal defense, even if you ultimately win the case. Many people don’t want to deal with that.
So we’d see a real chilling effect if people are afraid to post their opinions. If RateMyProfessor.com hadn’t allowed anonymous postings, students certainly wouldn’t have shared opinions about professors because of fear of retribution.
OJR: Have any lawsuits been filed against your company?
Nicholson: None of the [sites] has actually been sued. We regularly get threatening letters and phone calls. But we have quite strong legal protection in the form of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which basically says that we are immune from the liability for content posted by third parties on our website.
If someone wants to sue the person who posted the content, they have to go through a two-step process. First, they have to get information from our company about who posted the content, and really all we can give them is an IP address and time of posting because that’s all we have. And they need to get a court order in order to have us divulge that information, which we have done on a couple of occasions. Then they need to get another court order to go to the Internet service provider and find out who was using that IP address at that time.
Sometimes a person who posts a negative review will post enough information in the review that it’s kind of self-identifying, and there’s a reasonable cause of action. In that case, the party who objects to the review can bypass all of these steps and file a John Doe lawsuit claiming that they believe this person is responsible for these postings.
OJR: How should reviews be monitored?
Nicholson: We tend to air on the side of letting posts go through. We do remove posts that have derogatory racial or sexual comments. We also remove posts that include personal identifying information about the poster or third party.
If a post includes specific allegations of illegal actions, we delete that too. Our position there is if you have knowledge of specific legal actions, a ratings and review site is not the place to post that information.
For example, if someone posts something that says, ‘this auto mechanic says that he fixed my carburetor and he didn’t fix it at all. He didn’t do what he said he was going to do,’ that’s a complaint about service. On the other hand, if he posts something that says, ‘this auto mechanic gave me a written quote and then before he would give me my car, he gave me a bill for another item which does not match the quote,’ that’s an illegal action.
OJR: But as a reader of review sites, boy, would I want to know about that mechanic before I took my car there. So do you allow some of those posts or how does it work?
Nicholson: We do and it’s subjective and difficult because we have moderators and we provide guidelines for them, but sometimes the moderator may interpret the rule differently in a particular case than I would interpret the rule. So we have guidelines that we try to apply on the sites that we manage, and it’s by no means universal and other sites have different guidelines or standards.
OJR: How would a trade organization unite ratings sites?
Nicholson: One of the things that we want to do is provide a source of information the press can turn to for the other side of the story, which is that individuals really need a voice. They need a place to share their opinion, and where they can hear about what other people have experienced. They need to have something that balances the marketing power of professional associations by giving individual consumers the ability to express themselves and learn from other consumers.
OJR:What would a professional code of conduct for ratings sites include?
Nicholson: That’s really premature to talk about. I think one of the things we need to do is as we build the organization is to get the various companies involved in deciding that.
OJR: How do you draw guidelines for posts?
Nicholson: Well that comes down to the individual company and site philosophy, and I do think that it’s important that sites be open and public about what their standards are so you can understand how posts are being filtered.
In our case we’re very careful about deleting things because we don’t want to bias the ratings with our feelings. People express themselves differently. We see a very different review and type of language on our nightclub site than on our camp ratings site. If we try to apply our biases, I might filter out a lot of the ratings on our nightclub ratings site because of the language, but for that audience it’s valid discourse–
OJR: So you don’t want to disrupt the culture of whatever the product or the service is–
Nicholson: Yes. We also put a lot of faith in people as readers. When you’re reading reviews that people have posted, their language will influence you and you’ll interpret what they’re saying partly based on how they’re saying it. Do they seem like they’re crazy and vindictive or do they seem reasonable and are giving a balanced review?
We don’t prefilter the content because you can form your opinions just as well as a moderator will make any decision as to what to let you say.
OJR: How does a user trust that reviews are legit?
Nicholson: Through a combination of software filters and instructions to our human moderators, we do try to filter out that type of abuse. We give our moderators instructions to look for patterns that computer software would have a difficult time seeing. For example, do I see the same phrases being used? Do I see the same language used over and over again? Do I see reviews submitted for five different Realtors within the same geographical region that uses very similar language to say this Realtor’s terrible? Then the suspicion is that maybe a realtor in that area is systematically slamming his competitors.
We also have faith in the site visitor to look at the reviews and say, you know all these reviews are just too glowing, or they’re all just too awful and I don’t really believe them. We also emphasize this is just one source of information and if it’s an important decision, it certainly shouldn’t be your only source of information.
To contact Bob Nicholson about his proposed trade association, e-mail bob [at] ratingz.net.