“Completely Evil Social Network”
The Chicago Tribune published a story today about a new website that is being developed by an entrepreneur in San Francisco called “Unvarnished”. The website is meant to take on other social networks, such as Linkedin and Facebook, but operates like Yelp with one huge difference: Unvarnished is a place for people to post reviews of professionals, not restaurants.
It is not well populated yet, but the reviews so far are scathing. One commentator said that Unvarnished is a “[c]lean, well-lighted place for defamation.” Apparently, the posted comments are not fact checked nor are they verified by any means at all, leaving one’s professional reputation extremely vulnerable.
This brings up a number of increasingly important legal points. First, judges and attorneys are going to need to keep up with the way technology works. When defamation claims are filed based on internet postings or content, and they inevitably will, judges cannot expect to rely on making comparisons to physical guest books or graffiti on a wall. Metaphorically comparing internet technology to real life does not work. A great example is document retention programs on huge international networks and data farms versus filing closets; these cannot be directly compared when making discovery rulings.
Second, claims arising from activities on websites such as Unvarnished and Yelp will lead to cases that involve First Amendment rights. Is a blog entitled to the constitutional protections that the free press gets? What about the right to free speech? Further compounding the problem is the veil of anonymity that the internet appears to provide; though that veil has been shown to be more transparent than it appears. Recently, a Cook County judge had to rule on whether an online newspaper needed to turn over the IP address, and therefore the identity, of a commenter that purportedly defamed another person on its message board.
The law, and those who enforce and rule on it, will need to keep up with the fast pace of change that technology brings to reality. Gone are the days where “we didn’t have computers back when I was in law school” is a valid excuse. Information technology is prevalent enough that it has become a virtual liability for many. Who knows, maybe one day we will get to the point where there will be virtual slip and falls and virus liability. Until then, technical ignorance will not stifle the development of technology-based claims.