People may choose to avoid social media for any number of reasons. Refusing to engage with social media does not make you a luddite or old-fashioned. Instead, the decision to minimize one’s online presence is often a reflection of that individual’s desire to maximize his or her privacy. After all, no one will ever take your right to privacy more seriously than you; privacy starts with the individual. But now, the world might be able to learn just as much about you whether you have willingly elected to participate in social media or not.
Next month, a new mobile app called “Peeple” will launch. Peeple is being advertised as the “Yelp for people.” Just like anyone can use Yelp to rate a restaurant, anyone can use Peeple to rate a person. Anyone, anywhere, at anytime can download the app and upload a rating and review for any relative, friend, or acquaintance… whether that relative, friend, or acquaintance has consented or not. That’s right: users can assign reviews and one- to five-star rating to anyone the user knows: an ex-boyfriend, a co-worker, the bully from middle school, that annoying neighbor that refuses to respect personal space, etc. And, there is no opt out. This means that individuals cannot control whether their name is featured on the website. Once someone submits a review or rating for you, it is there permanently unless the site’s terms of service are violated. Oh, and the subject of the review cannot delete bad or biased reviews. Scared yet?
Privacy professionals preach that valuing one’s privacy is a choice we make every single day. We choose whether to post that raunchy photograph from a vacation or vent our workplace frustrations 140 characters at a time. By and large, privacy on social media has always been a personal choice. Indeed, many are so concerned about the invasive nature of social media that they avoid it altogether. Peeple is a game-changer because it takes that choice away. Whether you like it or not, every interaction you have ever had could suddenly be open to scrutiny on the World Wide Web.
But the privacy concerns do not stop there. When Peeple launches, users will be able to create a profile of any person who is not currently on the site, but only if the user provides that person’s cell phone number for verification purposes. Not only can someone have a post written about them without their consent, but the company is also actively encouraging its users to share other people’s personal contact information. Cell phone numbers generally are not considered private information, but few will be thrilled to know that someone is posting about them and giving their phone number to a third-party company.
Peeple could face a handful of legal challenges as a result of its revolutionary approach to privacy (or lack thereof). First, by collecting cell phone numbers in bulk without consent of the number’s owner, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission may begin focusing its investigations on the company. The FTC and its state regulator counterparts look for situations in which business arrangements seem inherently unfair. The company’s bulk collection of cell phone number information could be seen as an unfair business practice, because it arguably operates as a compelled disclosure of personal information. If you do not already have an account with Peeple, but a user wants to review you, the user must provide your cell phone number. You will receive a text message notifying you that someone has used your number to write a review, but you will be unable to stop the review or remove your number.
Second, Peeple could unintentionally find itself running afoul of child-protection laws. Currently, Peeple’s terms of service require users to be twenty-one years of age or older. This is likely an effort to avoid potential legal and ethical problems involved with minors being given unfettered access to publicly judge one another (because middle school is tough enough on its own, right?). Legal issues under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act could arise for information about a child under the age of 13, unless there is consent from the parent. But age restrictions like this in mobile applications are often difficult to enforce. If Peeple does not properly ensure that information about minors is not shared with or collected by the site, the company could find itself paying steep civil penalties. Yelp, the app often compared to Peeple, had to pay a $450,000 civil penalty last year after the FTC determined that it improperly collected information on children. Further, the absence of an opt-out mechanism even for the phone numbers of children could garner increased attention from regulators.
Finally, what about the potential people to use Peeple to defame and bully others?? The Communications Decency Act would likely protect Peeple and its co-founders from liability. Section 230 of the Act generally protects online platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter from being held responsible for the things people say on them. However, the app’s users likely would not be afforded the same protections. If a user writes a review or comment that can be proven to be false, the user may be liable for defamation regardless of whether the poster knew the information to be inaccurate. Also, outside of the United States, Peeple could find itself liable for defamatory comments by its users. In countries like Canada, defamation laws hold the publisher equally responsible as the person who wrote the defamatory message. And the legal woes internationally for countries with strict privacy protections could create even more challenges for the new app.
In many ways, it is remarkable that it has taken this long for a company to develop a process for humans to rate and review one another. After all, we aggregate data on ourselves all the time. Advertisers, businesses, educators, and a plethora of other professionals collect and analyze data all the time. Indeed, parents may want to use Peeple to learn more about a potential babysitter and those on the dating scene may use it to evaluate a potential suitor. We can all have our personal judgments as to whether Peeple is appropriate for these means. But what we can learn from Peeple is that a new attitude towards privacy is emerging. Privacy once started with the individual. But now, privacy begins with all of us as a community. We must be mindful and empathetic of the value that other’s have for their own privacy and respect that. Peeple might be deemed as “terrifying” by many, but I see it as an opportunity. One of my colleagues has written about how it takes a community to change our national attitudes towards privacy. It takes each and every one of us, as a larger community, to invest a personal stake in one another’s privacy, not just our own. In sum, it requires us to be good people.