Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Vast Web of Vengeance

Kashmir Hill, New York Times:

[Guy] Babcock, a software engineer, got off the phone and Googled himself. The results were full of posts on strange sites accusing him of being a thief, a fraudster and a pedophile. The posts listed Mr. Babcock’s contact details and employer.

The images were the worst: photos taken from his LinkedIn and Facebook pages that had “pedophile” written across them in red type. Someone had posted the doctored images on Pinterest, and Google’s algorithms apparently liked things from Pinterest, and so the pictures were positioned at the very top of the Google results for “Guy Babcock.”

There is something cunning — albeit merciless and cruel — about this smear campaign. Google’s search ranking algorithms already know that websites like Ripoff Report and Cheater Bot are basically full of bullshit and potentially libellous claims, so these websites are almost never at the top of search results. Pinterest’s better Google ranking is being used to launder this trash.

Pinterest has a decent reputation on the moderation of its platform, but this is a concerning vector of attack. The potential for this to be repeated and abused to greater extent seems obvious to me.

Hill:

Ripoff Report is one of hundreds of “complaint sites” — others include She’s a Homewrecker, Cheaterbot and Deadbeats Exposed — that let people anonymously expose an unreliable handyman, a cheating ex, a sexual predator.

But there is no fact-checking. The sites often charge money to take down posts, even defamatory ones. And there is limited accountability. Ripoff Report, like the others, notes on its site that, thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, it isn’t responsible for what its users post.

This story is a near-perfect intersection of the unlimited distribution of the web and the lack of accountability that permits such a ruthless smear campaign. In a particularly distressing turn, Hill herself got caught up in it, too, after contacting the alleged perpetrator behind the attacks on Babcock.

However, entirely removing CDA Section 230 protections could make websites legally accountable for things posted by third parties. If that happens, most of the web that allows for user contributions would disappear. That means the end of comment sections, hosted blog platforms, photo and video platforms, and more. Only the biggest players would be able to support such a burden, and they would necessarily be radically altered.

I know the E.U.’s right to erasure rule — passed as part of GDPR — has a poor reputation; it is seen by some as a way to erase history. But, at least in this very narrow instance of websites, it seems to have had some effect. The websites mentioned are either prohibited from being accessed in the E.U. by their terms-of-service, or they block European visitors by geolocation. It is not a case of them being unable to comply with the right to erasure; they are simply unwilling to do so.

The Ripoff Report FAQ says that the company will never remove any complaint because doing so would amount to “rampant censorship”. I see it as a sociopathic level of indifference for the damage the website facilitates.