Saturday, 23 January 2016

It's Official — I'm Not A Criminal Mastermind On The Internet, Or Anything

Cartoon of Wendy Cockcroft being arrested
Well I've had a tweet, an email, and I've confirmed it with a nice chap via 101 from from Greater Manchester Police over the phone: I'm not under investigation for stampeding cattle through the Vatican extortion, theft, and crimes against nature, etc.

They've got no immediate plans to perp-walk me out of the office in an orange jumpsuit with manacle accessories. And my bosses have no plans to sack me because some histrionic loon is lying about me on the internet, so there. They told me not to worry about it and get back to work.

This ridiculous nonsense has got me thinking, though, about a situation that is affecting an increasing number of people: libel online. The perpetrators and the platforms that enable it hide behind freedom of speech laws but the worst thing is, the platforms like to present themselves as consumer protection advocates when they're actually not. Let's take a closer look.

If 4Chan ran a business...

4chan is a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images anonymously. It is also the birthplace of Longcat, Anonymous, and Lulzsec, and a host of popular memes, among other things. Although it can be fun you click on the above link at your own risk; the /b/ board is a barren wasteland, riddled with dodgy pictures and trolls and lolspeak, the very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. You have been warned. If you can't imagine the regulars starting an online business for the lulz, look no further than the "Arbitration" page at Ripoff Report (and an example of an accusation proven false. At least they had the decency to put a rebuttal notice at the top of the page where I'm accused of being the baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells), the "How it works" page at, and the fact that they've hidden my rebuttal at Yelp. They make it damn hard to contact an actual person and in some cases won't remove the content even if it's proven defamatory in a court of law.

Needless to say, people on the receiving end of this crap don't tend to take it very well and some of them have taken these glorified flame war forums to court to make them take the offending content down. Good luck with that in a country where freedom of speech is treated as a "free market" issue, i.e. the Golden Rule applies: he who has the gold makes the rules.

Nice reputation you've got there, it'd be a pity if anything happened to it

As I have already pointed out, these libel enablers who portray themselves as valiant defenders of free speech do much to chill it. You might think twice about blogging about a given situation reported in the media or on another blog if you knew that the subject thereof was likely to post negative reviews of your business or the one you work for on a consumer complaints board under a pseudonym.

If you were sacked from your job by drawing the wrong kind of attention to yourself (this happened to me a few years ago) or lost friends, clients, or associates because they were afraid of that nonsense coming their way (this also happened to me), you might be unwilling to express your opinions on certain matters in your own name (as I do these days). If this is not censorship, what shall we call it?

What can we do?

I've got a few ideas along the lines of "carrot and stick" to get these hypocrites under control, namely get a plugin made and provide it to them for free, then get legislation passed to compel them to add it to their websites if they won't do it voluntarily. There's also the matter of getting them to call themselves what they really are: no consumers are being assisted or protected by their "services."

The plugin

I'm looking for a plugin to make available to websites featuring user-generated content, particularly those where people can post complaints online, as these are generally unverified and the moderation is minimal.

The idea is, the moment someone posts a rebuttal, the plugin is triggered, adding "DISPUTED:" in red capital letters to the headline text in the post itself and on the search engine results, as illustrated below.

Sample search results provided by the plugin

Sample post headline and subheading provided by the plugin

It also adds "*REBUTTAL Individual responds: [$headline composed by responder]" to the post heading.

The code would then be released as an OS project to be forked and adapted as required by developers.

I've posted the job on People Per Hour and have already been contacted by some developers with a view to creating a JavaScript plugin to use on a range of CMS.

The law

We have consumer protection laws including the Trades Descriptions Act 1968, under which businesses can not mislead their customers. Basically, you can't pretend to be a consumer advocacy service providing consumer reviews of businesses, then charge businesses to either set the record straight or force them to get a court order to find out who their accuser is and serve them with a court order. In America, there's no problem with that, they call First Amendments and you, consumer, can go swing.

I'd propose that legislation be enacted to

  • call companies to account and levy fines on them for pretending to provide services that they actually don't 
  • add a disclaimer to all contested posts (they can use a plugin for automation purposes as specified above)
  • remove offending posts subject to a court order IF the accusations are proven false via documents submitted
  • provide IP addresses of posters subject to a court order IF the accusations are proven false via documents submitted in order that the poster can be tracked down and sued for defamation, if required

I don't know how feasible this is but as it stands the balance is tipped in favour of the libel trolls and that is emphatically not fair. Freedom of speech? Not for those whose reputations are being destroyed. On Yelp my rebuttal is hidden away while the libel troll who posted that crap gets her lies up front and centre as a recommended review. If we're going to have real freedom there needs to be a balance so that one side doesn't have an unfair advantage, you know, how a free market would actually work.

What do you think?

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