2010-04-15 / Features

Scant Praise For “Unvarnished,” Web Site For Reviewing People

By Will Buchanan CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR CONTRIBUTOR

There are online reviews of movies, cars, computers, and now... people? Unvarnished, a controversial new “people review site,” which began its latest round of testing last Monday, is allowing invited users to anonymously publish reviews and comments about others’ workplace performances.

Users who connect to the site via Facebook can create a profile about someone else and post reviews of that person’s workplace performance. The subjects of such reviews can, if they choose, “claim” their profiles and manage them to a degree, but they will not be able to delete negative reviews. After testing, the site is expected to be open to the public.

Unvarnished is already raising ethical and legal concerns related to privacy and protection from defamation, with many questions focusing on the fact that the critiques are anonymous. Reviewers have overwhelmingly panned the Web site.

Unvarnished “essentially encourages defamation because it guarantees a forum for venting.” This forum is designed, in essence, for taking swipes at folks you don’t like. And it’s smartly leveraging Facebook’s very popular format to do so,” lawyer Kristen Dumont told the Los Angeles Times.

Unvarnished is “a clean, well-lighted place for defamation,” writes Evelyn Rusli at the Web site TechCrunch.

Unvarnished cofounder Peter Kazanjy told CNET’s Molly Wood that he believes site users will police themselves. While users often use pseudonyms for usernames, he notes, their usernames follow them across the site. Reviewers will get “trustworthiness” ratings over time if they deliver reasonable reviews supported by others. Kazanjy hopes features like these will support a moderate, fair tone in reviews.

If Kazanjy is wrong, however, Unvarnished may find itself at the center of a legal storm.

One key question: Should people be able to write potentially libelous statements anonymously?

“Anonymous reviews are ethical if they are about anonymous people,” jokes Rushworth Kidder, president of the Institute of Global Ethics, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting awareness of ethics. “But not named people. Only named reviews are ethical if they are about named people. Do not mix these.”

“It is a litigation nightmare,” said lawyer Fred Alvarez, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. “Having to answer for the statements that we make in public has been a pretty good deterrent to making comments that cannot be substantiated. That’s not a bad thing. But if the object of ‘praise’ cannot hold the person accountable in defamation law because they can’t find them, then the field is wide open to do and say things that we would not otherwise say and get enormous coverage for the comments.”

A second issue: Should people be able to create profiles about other people without their knowledge? Is that a violation of privacy?

“Unvarnished plans to show us precisely what it means to live in an online world where not only is there no privacy, but everything anyone says can and will be used against you – for the rest of your life,” writes Alex Salkever of Daily Finance.

Kidder, too, is concerned about privacy. “From where do we get the idea we should review people’s lives?” he asks. “Politicians, writers – these folks expect their public products to be reviewed. But most folks have not agreed to this sort of review.”

“This sounds to me like an infrastructure of harassment,” he adds.

There’s also the possibility that the site can be manipulated by those who pay others to write positive reviews about them. Such efforts to control the message are not unknown in the online world.

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