Saturday, 6 February 2016

Can You Trust Consumer Review Sites Like Pissed Consumer?

Given my recent experiences of consumer review sites you could forgive me, I'm sure, for giving them no more credibility than a public toilet wall. That said, Techdirt has a lot of good things to say about Pissed Consumer that has got me thinking again about their value to the internet and online life in general. Let's take a closer look.

Before we delve into this we're going to have to agree on what a consumer review site is actually for: they're to provide to the public a platform to discuss the merits or demerits of the businesses they have had dealings with, the idea being to let other people know whether or not to buy their goods or use their services. I used to believe that this is what they actually did but remember, they carry third party content so it's not really fair to expect them to get their staff to personally moderate every single post that appears on their sites. The trouble is, the third parties are allowed to post their comments in good faith, the idea being that they're being trusted to tell the truth about companies like say, Roca Labs.

Pissed Consumer protects freedom of speech

As I said, I've had bad experiences with consumer review sites accepting troll posts as gospel but sometimes it's hard to tell just from reading the posts whether they were written by trolls or not. The Roca Labs story is a case in point. I'll set it out in bullet points:

  • This company claims to make an "alternative" to gastric bypass surgery in the form of some "industrial food thickening agents" that (the company claims) will fill up your stomach and make you not want to eat. 
  • These claims are not FDA reviewed and an examination of the claims by a doctor found them to be questionable (to say the least).  
  • A discount is offered to all customers who agree to be bound by a gag order.
  • It has a strict no-returns policy even though it acknowledges that the product doesn't work.
  • The product can actually make you ill.
  • Roca Labs does dodgy things to promote itself, sues critics, and abuses DMCA to get the links of negative stories removed from the search results.

It's the lawsuits against negative reviewers that caught Techdirt's attention: people who complained were sued for "breach of contract" and "defamation per se." Pissed Consumer was itself sued and had to fight back and even though it won it had to pay costs. Nonetheless, Pissed Consumer stood firm against a litigious bully and did not cave in.

What exactly was protected?

When people actually tried the Gastric Bypass Alternative and found that it either made them ill or didn't work, they took to complaints boards to complain about it. Some of them went to Pissed Consumer to warn other people not to use it. The thing is, when people complain about how badly they were served by certain companies, they often come under attack for sharing their actual, genuine experiences. Imagine posting a complaint about bedbugs at a hotel you paid for with a credit card only to find a thousand pounds or more taken from your card because you didn't notice the non-disparagement clause in your booking agreement. When Pissed Consumer took on Roca Labs they ripped the gags off the mouths of those disgruntled customers who had real experiences to share and fought for their rights to use their platform to air their grievances. With a million dollars at stake, that was pretty damn brave of them.

Pissed Consumer protects privacy

In my opinion the revenge porn troll lurks somewhere between a cockroach and a weevil in terms of social desirability. They are disgusting, snivelling, cowardly creatures who persuade their unsuspecting girlfriends to consent to having intimate videos or images made of them, then, if the relationship goes south, circulate them online to humiliate them. Well I've learned that although Pissed Consumer is all about freedom of speech, their lawyer Marc Randazza is also all about respect for our sisters.

Why privacy matters to Pissed Consumer

Websites dedicated to uploading and publishing revenge porn have tried to claim that they are protected by the same law that protects the rights of consumer review sites to share consumer reviews – 47 U.S.C. § 230. However, they fail to take into account that there's a world of difference between providing a personal account of a service experience with a company and a personal experience with a private individual. As Pissed Consumer itself declares,

We don’t believe in harassment. We believe in accurate consumer reviews. Section 230 protects one, but not the other. And, we are grateful that we are represented by a guy who knows the difference. -

Pissed Consumer prides itself on being the one to stand up for the little guy (or gal) when everyone else either sadly shrugs, looks the other way, or goes barreling through like a bull in a china shop making things worse. The best thing about Randazza's methods is that he goes about his business without threatening freedom of speech and expression while ensuring that justice is done.

Pissed Consumer fights IPR abuse

I'm a huge opponent of the term "intellectual property" because it's a lazy shorthand for trademarks, copyright, patents, and whatever else the kids are doing these days. As a result the three terms, which are legally separate, tend to get conflated and added to notions of proprietary rights. Don't get me started on that. I'm a Pirate, remember. Well one of the well-documented problems with the invocation of property rights over trademarks, etc., is that it is frequently used for censorship on the grounds of, "That is mine, so it is, and I decide what you can do with it." Well that doesn't extend to the depiction of trademarked logos, etc., in consumer complaints posts, people.

Pissed Consumer litigates against DMCA abuse

If you should find yourself the subject of a Pissed Consumer review you're not happy with, don't be tempted to abuse DMCA to get it down.

Sometimes, would-be censors will try and use a DMCA takedown notice to remove content from Pissed Consumer. This rarely works, since we usually receive a counter-notification and put the information back up. Also, if someone mis-uses the DMCA, they can get sued by us under 17 U.S.C. § 512(f). Not only can they get sued, but we have sued over that. The recent case, Lenz v. Universal, shows that even a big music publishing company can get sued for mis-using the DMCA takedown procedure. Do you think that your company won’t get sued by us? - Our lawyer Marc Randazza on Copyright Misuse

That's right, Marc Randazza will drop kick your sorry rear end into orbit if you dare to abuse copyright law to get rid of content you don't like — and he really enjoys doing it. This is actually good news for us since, generally speaking there's no effective penalty for using DMCA as a censorship tool. By creating adverse consequences for those who do, Pissed Consumer helps to highlight the fact that copyright laws are being abused and to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to sue those who abuse them. We need many more lawyers to step up to the plate and make abusers pay for using copyright as censorship and DMCA takedowns to silence critics.

Can we trust consumer review sites?

I'm torn, to be honest. I'm being trolled by some twerp who's using me as a cattle prod to make another person jump for his own amusement by telling lies about me on consumer review sites, thereby forcing me to defend myself as best I can. This fun little game of his has put me at risk of being fined for tax offenses, arrested for extortion, etc., losing my job and being made homeless. This has undermined the credibility of the likes of Yelp, etc., in my eyes because if some basement-dwelling loser can make up lies about me and have them treated like holy writ for freedom of speech reasons, this could happen to anybody. So which of the negative reviews you might see on those sites are actually true?

Pissed Consumer can be trusted to stand up for consumers

I am pleased to have been able to find such great things to say about Pissed Consumer, particularly in light of my recent experiences. While I'm much more likely to take negative reviews on any site with a pinch of salt these days, I'm glad we can trust Pissed Consumer to stand up for those of us with legitimate grievances when the companies involved try to shut us up.

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