Still unclear how controversial 'Peeple' rating app will guard against increase in defamation on-line

Still unclear how controversial 'Peeple' rating app will guard against increase in defamation on-line

Published:

Author: Kath Livingston

Applies to: UK wide

Imagine a world where at the push of a smart phone button other people could rate you. Yes, rate YOU - between one and five stars. You... personally. On the internet.

This idea of personal endorsement is the vision of app founders Nicole McCullogh and Julie Cordray, who are working to create the "world's largest positivity app". Described in the press as an app for 'rating human beings', involving star ratings and comments, the Peeple app is positioned by its founders as a means of spreading 'love and positivity', allowing people to share positive reviews about the people they know. It's set to launch later this year in the US which means it could be coming to a smartphone near you in the UK soon after.

While we're used to living in a digital age where we can rate anything and everything from movies to employers, the 'Peeple' app looks to take this a step further by giving your co-workers, ex-spouse, neighbour or even old school friends that you haven't seen in years the power to make their views on you public.

Sound like a nightmare? It was certainly perceived that way when first announced and received widespread condemnation. There have been clarifications since as to how the app is intended to work, although the details have yet to be confirmed.

The initial understanding was that once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, quite possibly without your knowledge, there is no option to opt out and you can't delete reviews either, so they are visible for all to see. Imagine being watched and judged, at all times, on an app to which you did not sign up or consent.

Worse still, the availability of lower star ratings and scope for subjective comment suggested clear scope for the polar opposite of "positivity". The initial understanding was that:

  1. If you were subscribed to the app, positive comments would post immediately. Content would be advance screened and negative comments and ratings would be "held" for 48 hours allowing you as a subscriber to contest the review with the reviewer. Quite how you were to do that was unclear, beyond challenge and the art of persuasion. Fail to convince, and it appeared that the post would go live
  2. If you didn't subscribe, only positive comments and ratings of 3* and above would appear. But what if you didn't want to have any involvement in the app at all? Sadly, it seemed that you had no choice in the matter.

In answer to their critics, and with the development of the app seemingly still ongoing, the founders have insisted that the app will be a 100% opt in, positivity app, that there will be no 48 hour window to challenge negative comments, in fact no ability to make negative comments at all, and that no comment will be visible without the explicit consent of the subject.

The effective implementation and policing of these safeguards will surely be a gargantuan task.

Putting aside the ethical and moral issues of assigning a number value to a person, and the subjectivity of what the different star ratings mean, the app at first blush opened up a legal minefield of consent, defamation and data protection issues. Last year alone five internet trolls were convicted a day in the UK and the app had all the appearance of an easy playground for those looking to target the vulnerable with the intent to cause distress or anxiety. The key appears to be in the 100% opt in and explicit consent now being promised, alongside the absolute ban on anything other than positivity.

Last year there was a reported 23% increase in defamation actions - partly due to a rise in claims brought over defamatory material published through social media and websites. It remains to be seen how this app will be structured to deliver the positivity only vision.

Other legal implications in the absence of effective safeguards include propensity for cyber-bullying and harassment (as part of a broader campaign - for harassment a 'course of conduct' involving two or more events must be proved so one rating alone would not suffice). Then there is the question of privacy infringement, depending on what information is shared in reviews - again explicit consent could be the key.

Other safeguarding measures said to be in place, (and again the effectiveness of these is yet to be tested) include:

  1. The usual rules against degrading comments, abuse, hateful comments etc. And users must post under their true identity - no pseudonyms.
  2. People can only comment on you if they know you and to prove they know you they have to have your mobile phone number.
  3. Users must be over the age of 21 (age restrictions in particular are often easy to circumvent and tricky to enforce putting the welfare of young people, who often fall target to online bullying, at risk).

Practical guidance

The practical guidance at this stage is simple. The app has not been released yet, appears to still be in the development stage and final details are far from clear. If and when this app arrives, ensure that you understand how it, and the various safeguards, work. Whilst you may be attracted to the idea of being able to spread positivity about the people you know, this must be balanced against the fact that by registering your details you open yourself up to reviews and, inadvertently, the risk of attempts by some to subvert the positive messages only ethos.

Disclaimer

This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

About the Author

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Kath Livingston

Partner

03700 86 5756

Kath heads up our commercial disputes team in Manchester and our national reputation management & defamation team. She is an experienced litigator, having handled a wide range of complex and high value commercial and business disputes, successfully progressing and defending claims through High Court proceedings, arbitration and all forms of alternative dispute resolution.

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