The Internet is a land of freedom and entrepreneurship. But what happens when people take new monetization schemes too far? What are the ethical limits on the Internet?
Back in February I wrote about the Mugshot Extortion Racket and how mugshot website operators were asking high fees to remove mugshot pages that had been optimized to rank for the subjects’ names. Recently, Google acted to suppress mugshot pages because they used scraped content. While I agree with Google’s action and am glad the problem has been partially solved, there is still work to be done. Bing, for example, has not yet done anything; its search results remain polluted with mugshot scraper pages.
The mugshot racket is just one instance of a larger problem: paid unpublishing. In a paid unpublishing scam a website operator gets hold of embarrassing information, publicizes it, and then offers to take away the pain if a subject pays the fee. Whether or not this is criminal extortion, I’m quite sure the practice is unethical and should be condemned. Another example of an unpublishing scam would be revenge porn sites such as MyEx.com, which has links titled “Remove my name” that offer to delete records for $499. This is the digital equivalent of blackmail. Many types of information have the potential to embarrass. Unless steps are taken now to confront paid unpublishing, we may increasingly find our secrets or mistakes for sale online by unscrupulous “entrepreneurs.”
Sites that host complaints or reviews -- such as Ripoff Report, Yelp, and Pissed Consumer -- raise novel issues that are closely related to paid unpublishing. Anybody can post an unverified complaint or review on these sites. Ripoff Report allows businesses to post rebuttals free of charge, but it also offers a Corporate Advocacy Program. No details of the program are publicly disclosed. Pissed Consumer has a Business Solutions program that allows business to post responses or even get consumers' contact information before their complaints are posted. Yelp was sued for extortion in 2010 for allegedly offering to suppress or delete negative reviews in exchange for money. In my view it is a conflict of interest for a publisher to take money from review subjects in exchange for favorable treatment with respect to reviews. It is widely understood that review sites are entitled to sell ads. But when they sell reputation management services, they are entering into a conflict of interest.
If a site doesn’t verify and vouch for content posted by users, it must allow those affected to reply, to call out any inaccuracies or unfair commentary. I call this the Right to Respond. Responses should be published on equal footing, with the same prominence as the original post. Responses may be required to follow site standards for decorum, length, and other reasonable houserules, enforced evenly for all participants. This is analogous to the requirement in traditional media that reporters provide article subjects an opportunity to comment as part of the story.
Ethical online media will always follow three principles:
- No Paid Unpublishing: If a publisher offers to modify or unpublish content, it must do so free of charge. This applies to all information, whether private, public, or quasi-public (obscure). Charging to publish is advertising. Charging to unpublish is extortion.
- Avoid Conflicts of Interest: For instance, a review site may not sell or recommend reputation management services that include favorable treatment of reviews on that site. The general principle is that one may not create a problem in order to sell a solution.
- Support the Right to Respond: If a publisher hosts user-generated content, it must allow a person or group mentioned in the content to post a response on equal footing, free of charge. User communities can regulate themselves, but only when all participants have a fair chance to speak.
What about freedom of speech? Yes, Internet publishers are generally free to publish. That’s what the First Amendment means to those of us in the United States. But freedom to publish does not include a right to damage somebody else’s privacy, or reputation, for profit. Freedom of speech does not protect slander, blackmail, or extortion.
When Internet media outlets do not behave ethically, we have a number of tactics available to pressure or marginalize them. First, we can write about unethical practices (scams) to raise awareness. Second, we can ask search engines and payment processors to stop providing services to scams. Nobody is entitled to receive search engine traffic or to process credit cards.
A study, "Click Trajectories: End-to-End Analysis of the Spam Value Chain," has shown the most effective way to stop online scams is to cut off their payment processing. (Online scams are often powered by spam at some stage in the lifecycle, but the same technique of interdicting the money should work equally well for scams that don’t rely on spam.) As a community, legitimate Internet publishers ought to do more to identify bad actors and press for their payment processing to be terminated. Online scams cause users to mistrust the Internet, which detracts value from every legitimate Internet business. We all have a stake in cleaning up the Internet.
— Jonathan Hochman, founder, Hochman Consultants.