After receiving dozens of calls and complaints from citizens across Kentucky, Attorney General Jack Conway has asked Topix. com, an interactive message board website host, to provide information regarding its policies dealing with abusive posts that violate the website’s terms of service.
Conway’s Office of Consumer Protection has received calls and complaints from citizens who allege that false and defamatory information about children, as well as adults, has been posted on the Topix website. They have also complained that the tools provided by Topix to remove the abusive posts are ineff ective unless consumers agree to pay a $19.99 fee.
In a letter sent to Topix.com CEO Chris Tolles, Conway and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, chair of the National Association of Attorneys General Multistate Task Force on Internet Safety, expressed their concerns with the Topix.com “Forums and Polls” pages and the website’s $19.99 fee for “priority review” of inappropriate posts that violate the website’s terms of service. An initial investigation by the attorneys general reveals that the “Forums and Polls” section is used to post derogatory information and appears to operate without moderators. In fact, a large percentage of the posts in some Kentucky forums contain explicit, vulgar, obscene and defamatory posts about people, including children.
“Abusive or negative posts can have a devastating impact on youth. Tragically, many teenagers today turn to suicide as a way to escape abuse or cyberbullying on the Internet,” said Conway. “I have heard from parents, consumers and officials from across Kentucky who have complained about the outrageous comments that are allowed to be posted and not policed by Topix. Richard Blumenthal and I find it deplorable that any website would deliberately create an environment where false and derogatory comments about children, or anyone, would be permitted and then allowed to remain on the website.”
Conway and Blumenthal urged Topix to remove abusive posts as soon as possible and not try to profit from their removal. The attorneys general also caution that requiring consumers to pay to remove posts that violate the site’s terms of service poses serious consumer protection concerns. Even though the website allows users to “flag” posts for removal, consumers have found that to be ineff ective in removing posts. Consumers are also given the option of paying $19.99 for an “expedited review,” which does appear effective in having the post removed. The attorneys general also complain that the website is confusing and appears designed to steer people toward payment of the $19.99 option.
“How outrageous that targets of false and obscene posts may be victimized twice — first by the abusive comment and then by the charge to remove it. Topix should reward, not rip off, consumers and victims who report abusive posts, particularly any targeting children, that violate the website’s own policies,” said Blumenthal.
The attorneys general say they respect a person’s first amendment rights and the protections afforded to Internet service providers by federal law; however, the first amendment does not protect libelous comments. In their letter, they ask Tolles to contact them to respond to the concerns they have expressed.
“We hope that Topix will address our concerns in a constructive and positive way,” said Conway. “We were successful in working with social networking giants MySpace and Facebook and with Craigslist in making changes to their websites that benefit children. We hope Topix will respond in a similar manner.”