Monday, March 12, 2012

Creator of website for "naming" people with STD's (often falsely) may not be able to "hide" behind Section 230; Anderson Cooper grilled him today

Today, Monday, March 12, 2012, Anderson Cooper aired a riveting report about a website “Std carriers” that allows people (or invites them) to report other people’s STD status, for any disease (HIV, HPV, herpes, etc.)  He does not screen the reports, and only takes “false” reports down if the subject sends medical information.  He also provides a link to services to repair the person’s “reputation”.

The individual running the site is named Cyrus Sullivan.  There has been some coverage of this matter, before, such as by Victoria Bekiempis of the Village Voice on Feb. 12, 2012, here. Nerve has an article by EJ Dickson Feb. 11, 2012, here.

There are many complaints online, such as this reply to one from “p. consumer”, here.

Apparently, the website has been around for some years, such as this Blogger report from the Hooters Girl on Nov. 4, 2008, link.

Anderson scolded Cyrus during the show, asking him about whether he had any "moral compass" and calling him a “waste of breath” at least twice, and presented at least two victims, one of whom found not only her picture on the site but that of her nine-year-old son.  Cyrus said that there are infinitely many places to defame others on the Internet, and Anderson fired back, why do you want to do this and continue it and make it worse?  This would have been a good show for Dr. Phil to appear on.

Internet lawyer Parry Aftab, well known for her work on cyberbullying, addressed the “obvious” question, Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.  It’s true that Cyrus would not be liable for false postings by users if he didn’t profit from the site.  But because he directs people to reputation repair services ("Reputation cleanup"), what he is doing might amount to extortion, either actionable in a civil suit, or possibly with criminal complaints.  This is speculative, but there could be (according to Aftab’s comments) a question of Sullivan’s liability if he profited even in a trivial way, such as by running ordinary ads on his site. (A service that facilitated this, like Google, would probably say it violates terms of service or program policies.) I have not personally heard this concept before and plan to check with Electronic Frontier Foundation on whether she is right. Aftab said she would take up Sullivan’s activity with the New York State attorney general right after the show. Sullivan operates from Oregon.

I wonder if HIPAA could also be invoked, to show that the site violates legally driven standards for privacy of personal medical information. 

I have to say that, during the show, Cyrus seemed to rationalize his behavior in superficial ways. He has claimed that “public good outweighs any inadvertent possible harm”.  (Boy, that sounds like a distortion of Santorum’s “common good”.) He also did say he was providing a forum for “subjects” to refute charges made by others.  But should people really have to respond to false charges made by others online that they are HIV-positive? What happens when an employer finds them form a search engine this way?

It’s easy to imagine running sites to report people for doing anything wrong.  I’ve covered here before the “gag order” problem, where medical providers try to ban patients from discussing them online because some physicians and dentists have run into false comments and had their practices damaged. This gets into the “consumer ratings” sites business, which generally has public support and is protected by Section 230.

In fact, there is video on "Daily Motion" that describes (Sullivan's) other sites that allow the reporting of putative cyber bullies or illegal aliens, as well as those with the STD issue, here. It says that posters can report others anonymously, and that there is an "Honor System" and that "false reports" lead to a "fine".  The site is hosted in Holland, which this report also helps Sullivan avoid liability. (I'm not sure how.  Europe has no Section 230 as far as I know, or does it?)

Anderson’s own link, dated March 10, is titled “Guilty until Proven Innocent”, link here

"My Web of Trust" (MYWOT) gives Sullivan's site a red circle, meaning poor reputation, report link here.

Let me add, I do not collect personal information from people myself online, and I do not focus posts on personal matters with people (including the STD issue) unless the person has already been credibly reported in the “established” media (where there has been some fact-checking).

Peter Busch reports on this matter on CBS News in Los Angeles on YouTube here. The tone of the report is not as confrontational as Anderson’s (but Peter did not interview Cyrus).  An attorney says that any person posting false defamatory information about someone else is always exposed personally to a libel lawsuit, even if the operator of the site may not be.  There is obviously a practical difficulty in litigating all such cases. If the accusation was anonymous, there are obvious legal issues and expenses for the plaintiff in discovering the poster's identity.  But if Aftab were right, could a "class action" suit against a site like Sullivan's work?

There's another side of this.  There is a website that allows people to inform partners (anonymously) of their HIV or other STD status, as explained here by Lisa Oldson, Jan. 2011, here. This is unrelated to the Sullivan site. 

This particular problem has a lot to digest.  It is not so simple as it first looked.  

Update: March 13: See post on my "Internet safety" blog with a comment on (the best known reputation monitoring service).  It does have a good score with WOT.  It would not sound credible that it could be party to a scheme such as described in this show.  I could not find a site specifically called "reputation cleanup".  I wonder if it could be some kind of impostor.  I'm checking. Anderson's specific clip on this turns out to be here.  

Update  April 13
There are a number of YouTube videos posted by "NoLimitList", such as this one Apr 13 where Ashleigh Banfield talks to Anderson and predicts that liability limitations on operators under Section 230 will eventually change as the law catches up, link here. There are a lot of rogue sites out there more stories about this matter, but a lot of them don't look too credible.  I'll try to keep up with any real litigation that results from this matter, but I don't see it out there now. 


NoLimitList said...

Descent article. I just want to point out a couple things. First off I am protected by the CDA just like Ripoff Report is and they have never lost protection for their reputation management service. Secondly I couldn't care less about the New York Attorney General because I don't live there and I was already investigated by the Oregon Attorney General's office which has not bothered me for months now.

In addition I want yo add something to the part about because I used it last year just to see what it was like and it missed a lot of negative information about me that was very easy to find. I only signed up for the introductory privacy package, but they still gave me a preview of what their more advanced package found about me. The preview of the more advanced package missed the Pissed Consumer complaint you mentioned as well as a lot of other stuff. It seems to me that only care about identifying what they think they can remove for you and not what is being said about you on the web as a whole.

NoLimitList said...

One more thing. WOT is not reliable. They have a reputation management service just like mine and allow people to defame website all the time. In this case they are ganging up on me on "ethical" grounds with is a load of BS because ethics are intangible and cannot be measured.

test for chlamydia said...

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