Culture

Silicon Valley’s Newest App Is Likely To Aid Bigots, Destroy Privacy (Updated)

CREDIT: Shutterstock/Dylan Petrohilos

The internet is ablaze with rage over the prospect of a people-rating app that may come to iPhone users this fall. Peeple is the brainchild of co-founders Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray, and would allow users to give honest feedback on people they encounter through romantic hook-ups, business connections, or just casual acquaintances.

Cordray, the CEO for Canada-based recruiting firm Career Fox, touts the app as a platform that will reinforce personal accountability that makes “character the new currency.”

The app is criticized for its potential to unleash an incalculable concentration of wrath that will inevitably target groups already marginalized by inflammatory speech.

Peeple’s platform could “build a home for internet trolls and jaded exes,” said Carrie Goldberg, a sexual privacy attorney in New York and board member for the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, an advocacy group for victims of online harassment and abuse. “There is no opt-out…If we know anything about the internet, we know that women, minorities, queer and trans people are disproportionately the target of mob hatred.”

However, despite public outrage over the possibility of having every transgression published online, the controversial app — currently unavailable until late November at the earliest — is completely legal and likely represents the next level of social media interaction.

“This app is fully protected by the First Amendment, just like Yelp,” said Lee Rowland, free speech attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. “People may think it is embarrassing, cringe-worthy. But it’s still constitutionally protected.”

While the app and its founders are protected, she said, it doesn’t give users license to say what they want — there’s still the consequence of a defamation suit when false information is portrayed as fact.

Businesses and their owners are shielded from such lawsuits, thanks to the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which deflects liability to the speaker and not the owner of the platform used.

“The Communications Decency Act protects websites from being held liable for the speech of their users,” Rowland said. “They have robust protections because they provide platforms for speech. We want to encourage those platforms, for users to have a place online where they can share with each other. There’s an incredible amount of value in that.”

The 19-year old law, however, is criticized for being too lenient in giving businesses prosecutorial immunity. Jeopardy genius and anti-harassment crusader Arthur Chu said in a TechCrunch post that being able to sue is essential in the pursuit of justice. The CDA currently robs many online harassment victims — particularly those who have had their lives threatened — from going after sites that don’t address the issue.

If your harasser is able to take fairly basic steps to keep himself anonymous — and if the platform he chooses enables and enforces that anonymity — then there is literally nothing you or the government can do, even if his actions rise to the level of major crimes like attempted murder.

CDA protection has been waived in some extreme cases, but the application hasn’t been consistent, according to the National Law Review. For example, the Supreme Court voted to let victims sue the classified ad service Backpage.com, which hosted advertisements for escort services and resulted in the sexual assault of minors. Contrarily, Backpage was given immunity in a different case.

In Peeple’s case, the app poses as a noble shortcut to getting to know someone and their intentions before agreeing to enter into a relationship with them: “I really feel like I really should have the ability to really find out who somebody is, and find out their true character,” Cordray said on CTV’s Alberta Primetime. “That’s a really big problem to solve.”

Peeple follows in the footsteps of older personal review sites, such as Lulu and Don’t Date Him Girl, but will pull Facebook profile information for accounts active longer than six months; users must be at least 21 years old. Positive reviews, Cordray told CTV, could allow people to get recruited faster and receive better job opportunities by “putting their online reputation out there.”

The app prohibits bullying, harassment, sexual references, profanity, medical or health information, and a slew of other private information. It also attempts to curb hasty, passive aggressive behavior by sending negative comments to the person being reviewed. The commenter then has 48 hours to confront the person they want to slam and hopefully resolve the dispute before it’s posted. Users who get negative reviews can also rebut allegations.

Reviews greatly inform everything from purchasing decisions to choosing a doctor or teacher. But they require near constant moderation that other tech companies haven’t yet perfected, and are tough for law enforcement to interpret.

Social media has embodied the best and worst of human behavior, repeatedly proving to be a cacophony of opinions and harsh words that can lead to mental anguish, but also spark revolutions. If anything, Peeple could very well be the future of online interactions, a complete realization of the TV show Community’s Meow Meow Benz parody skit, in which everyone can warn the masses by rating his or her daily encounters.

Even still, there’s the lingering problem of actually punishing those who don’t use a site as it is intended.

“Defamation and privacy suits are unlikely to prevent abuse through this product. Few people online — especially those acting anonymously and who may live in another hemisphere — are fearful of being sued,” Goldberg said. “So if a person lost her job based on defamatory information published on Peeple, and could prove that, she might be successful in a lawsuit. But that would require she have the money to sue, be able to identify the culprit of the information, and collect on a judgment.”

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to quantify the damage caused by gossip. “What about the job interviews you don’t get because of the information posted about you? The people who won’t date you? The landlords who won’t rent to you?”

UPDATE OCT 5, 2015 4:45 PM

After an onslaught of criticism, Peeple creator Julia Cordray announced Monday the people-rating app would now only feature positive reviews. In a LinkedIn post, Cordray said the app will now be opt-in only and display positive reviews. All reviews must be approved by the person being reviewed before they are posted.

Cordray said Peeple was misunderstood and that she has received numerous harassing and death threats on social media since the initial Washington Post story was published last week.

"Peeple is a POSITIVE ONLY APP. We want to bring positivity and kindness to the world," she wrote. "I’ve received death threats and extremely insulting comments aimed at me, my investors, and my family on almost every social media tool possible. I hope now if nothing else by watching me you can clearly see why the world needs more love and positivity."

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