I got a call today from CNBC asking me to appear on a program to discuss the rising controversy surrounding GetUnvarnished.com, which CNBC called “the scariest website ever” and an “online reputation killer.” For those of you not familiar with the site, it bills itself as “an online resource for building, managing, and researching professional reputation, using community-contributed, professional reviews.” More specifically, the site says:
Unvarnished reviews help you get the inside scoop on other business professionals, providing candid assessments of coworkers, potential hires, business partners, and more. By contributing Unvarnished reviews, you can share your knowledge of other professionals, giving credit where credit is due, and valuable feedback where needed. Lastly, your own Unvarnished profile, which you may create yourself or claim one that has been created for you, helps you take control of and build your own professional reputation. Get recognition for your accomplishments and actively manage your career growth.
In essence, the site is like other online product or service review sites except in this case the product or service being reviewed is you! By letting people comment on other people’s reputation anonymously, the theory is that Unvarnished can become “a central hub for community-contributed reviews regarding an individual business professional,” according to the site.
However, as you can well imagine, the site raises all sorts of thorny questions about anonymity, free speech, privacy, personal reputation, libel, child safety, cyberbullying, intermediary liability, and so on. If you read these two TechCrunch articles [1, 2], you’ll get a good feel for the heated debate that will follow, which I’m sure we’ll be talking about more here on this blog in the months to come. I can see this becoming the next AutoAdmit or JuicyCampus case, and raising some of the same questions that came to the fore during the “skank” blogger case last year. For now, here’s the video from the CNBC show, and down below I have included some talking points I put together before I went on the air.
Talking Points I prepared for today’s CNBC segment:
- one of the best things about the Net is this instantaneous feedback loop it provides for a variety of things
- that feedback loop is particularly powerful for products and services (think Amazon for books, Netflix for movies, Yelp for restaurants, and so on)
- we should allow ongoing experimentation with user feedback mechanisms
- the question that Unvarnished.com puts front and center is whether we should allow such community feedback site for people and their reputations. Should such “social reputation” sites be allowed to aggregate anonymous comments about the reputations of others?
- in a sense, we’ve been here before with sites like JuicyCampus and AutoAdmit, although they were extreme examples
- I think experimentation should be allowed to continue but…
- we should encourage responsible behavior & site moderation
- if serious incidents ensue, there needs to be method of identifying and dealing with biggest troublemakers
- this is not like restaurant or book review sites; people are far more sensitive about personal information and profiles
- lawsuits will fly if things get ugly on the site since people take their reputations so seriously
- veil of anonymity may need to be pierced in extreme cases
- a key feature of Unvarnished.com is that you must use a Facebook account to log, meaning that even though anonymous comments will be allowed, ultimately, they could be traced back to actual users (that’s what separates Unvarnished from Juicy Campus)
- done right with proper safeguards, such sites could provide an important social resource
- there will be reputational benefits of a different sort that accrue to the sites or companies that strikes the right balance
- sites that adopt an “anything goes” approach will likely be marginalized
- finally, let’s remember that there’s no guarantee that these sorts of sites will catch on. Just because uder feedback sites are popular for goods and services doesn’t mean they will be for people or reputations. It could be that reputational feedback is left for sites like LinkedIn, where “real-name culture” is expected (no one leaves anonymous reputation reviews on LinkedIn. Of course, no one ever leaves a bad review either! It’s all just ‘you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours’ sort of reviews.)
- The AutoAdmit Case and the Future of Sec. 230, by Adam Thierer
- Randy Cohen’s “Guideline” for Anonymous Blogging: Ethical or Legal Matter? by Adam Thierer
- Guidelines & Best Practices for Anonymous Blogging (Pt.2), by Adam Thierer
- Anonymity, Reader Comments & Section 230, by Adam Thierer
- Under-Appreciated Existing Legal Remedies for Trolling, Defamation and Other “Malwebolent” Invasions of Privacy, by Berin Szoka
- Kentucky Bill Targets Online Anonymity, by Ryan Radia
- Students, Cyber-Bullying, & Online Free Speech, by Adam Thierer
- The Future of Sec. 230 and Online Immunity: My Debate with Harvard’s John Palfrey, by Adam Thierer
- Eric Goldman on New Threats to Sec. 230, by Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka
TechCrunch articles mentioned above:
- Unvarnished: A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Defamation, by Evelyn Rusli
- Reputation Is Dead: It’s Time To Overlook Our Indiscretions, by Michael Arringrton