Gossip Gone Wild

Backlash against gossip site spurs law enforcement investigation.

February 26, 2009, 7:54 PM

March 20, 2008 — -- Gossip is as old as prostitution -- and about as popular in cyberspace -- but it's a long way from the blogging of Perez Hilton to anonymously cyberslamming your classmate as "the biggest slut on campus."

Now the controversial college gossip site Juicycampus.com is facing a raft of subpoenas from law enforcement officials in New Jersey who have been investigating the site for more than a month.

But they're not after the site for its often nasty content, at least not directly.

Instead, like the G-men who brought down mobster Al Capone with tax evasion charges, New Jersey prosecutors are using a creative interpretation of a very unscandalous statute to go after Juicycampus.com.

They claim that in its terms of use, Juicycampus.com prohibits offensive or abusive material from being posted on the site, but it fails to enforce those restrictions. They claim the site is in violation of the state's Consumer Fraud Act.

Still, legal experts and advocates say the site's founder -- Matt Ivester, Duke University '05 -- may prove in the end to be more legally bullet-proof than old Capone.

'Everyone Hates It'

Almost since its creation in August, the site has drawn protests from students at campuses across the country as they increasingly recognize how indefensible anonymous gossip can be.

"Everyone I talk to absolutely hates it,'' said Caitlyn Murphey, a sophomore at Texas Christian University, who founded Facebook.com's largest anti-Juicycampus group, which currently has more than 500 members.

"The stuff written on there just about other people is just really awful stuff," she said. "They write about the biggest slut on campus, who's sleeping with who, certain sororities, specific people. ... It's pretty blunt, obscene comments."

Murphey said that beyond the humiliation of being targeted by name -- and oftentimes other identifying personal details such as phone numbers and dorm rooms -- there's a deep-seated concern among students that a mean mention on the site could affect a student's future.

"Employers hire people to look up stuff about people they hire,'' she said. "Regardless of it being a gossip site, there's no telling what could be true and that could really hurt your chances of getting a job."

Murphey said some of her closest friends have been written about.

"With [one male friend], he knows pretty much who wrote it," she said. "These people are jealous of him because of his academics. He wasn't really bothered ... but ... people have [written] about a certain friend of mine. They say she has slept with every guy in a certain fraternity and she hasn't."

One frustrated Cornell University junior found a filthy' post about his sexual exploits on the site recently.

"I thought, 'is this going to affect my job employment? Is this going to make people on campus look at me? Are people going to talk about me behind my back?'" he told The Associated Press recently.

He also said he wondered about his 11-year-old sister, who is spending more time on the Internet.

"What if she Googles me? What will she think about her big brother?" he said.

But other young people familiar with the site believe that media attention from credulous journalists has lent the site a far more menacing reputation than it deserves.

"I think a lot of the posts are pretty despicable, but I don't see the need for this kind of legal action,'' said Jacob Savage, 23, a recent graduate of Princeton University and editor in chief of Ivygateblog.com.

"The vast majority of the post are 'is this kid hot?' posted by the kid's friends," Savage said. "I think a lot of it is being overblown. I think the reaction should be 'let it die.' I honestly believe that if people gave it six months and no more media attention, it would go away.''

He said he and his Ivygateblog colleagues "have decided it's not worth writing about, even for us. ... It's sort of ridiculous."

Not to Sarah Ferguson, a current Princeton undergraduate, who said she was unfairly targeted by someone who posted about her on the site.

"It seemed as though the latest postings on JuicyCampus were all that was talked about in the dining halls, echoing up dorm stairwells, over cell phone conversations and whispered at the eating clubs," Ferguson told the Newark Star Ledger. "As someone who was libeled ... I felt as if eyes were following me on my way to class and out with friends, and thought I could hear my name in the whispers of my peers."

Six weeks ago New Jersey State Attorney General Anne Milgram's office received a complaint from an individual who had been written about on the site. Milgram wouldn't provide any more information about the alleged victim, but said the complaint prompted her office's investigation.

"This is a really troubling Web site that's got some really offensive stuff on it,'' Milgram told ABC News' Law & Justice Unit Wednesday.

She has subpoenaed records from the site to confirm her investigators' belief that its terms of service commit the site to police abusive or offensive material but that it fails to enforce those restrictions.

"They're basically saying 'we won't allow there to be abusive behavior on this Web site,' or 'if you're under 18 you need parental consent' to use the site, but our investigators found these representations were not being followed through on," Milgram said.

"One of the things that concerns me the most is that [anonymous posters] give out personal information about the [targeted] individuals -- names, phone numbers, dormitory room numbers,'' as well as gender, sexual orientations and religious preferences, she said.

Ivester did not respond to ABC News inquiries Wednesday. Late in the day a public relations firm representing the site declined to comment.

Site 'May Have Hanged Itself on Its Own Words'

"I've never seen this kind of [legal] step before,'' said Michael Fertik, founder of ReputationDefender.com, an online service that for a fee will scour the Internet for inaccurate information about its clients and seek to have it removed.

Fertik said that to his knowledge previous prosecutorial actions against Web sites have been aimed at protecting against the abuse of children.

"It's been, to date, kind of save-the-children-type legal actions, not save the young adults," he said.

"This is not a discussion of free speech, it's a question of basic consumer protections, and if that's the case, Juicycampus.com may have hanged itself on its own words. If it does not actually do what it says it's going to do'' the site could be liable for consumer fraud violations, Fertik said.

Fertik said that colleges and universities are increasingly finding themselves caught over a barrel when it comes to sites like Juicycampus.

"Colleges are terrified,'' he said. "I have talked to a guy who teaches at one of the top Ivy League schools and has written on this topic and has said to me that administrators are terrified of doing anything, terrified of being accused of quelching speech."

But, he said, "they are just missing the point. They are not helping the issues here. These [college gossip sites] are going to have downstream consequences on their brand equity. Their students are going to have a harder time getting jobs, having careers."

Fertik, an advocate for aggressive pursuit of remedies to protect online reputations, argues that colleges and universities have a variety of options in dealing with sites like Juicycampus.

"They can simply shut access down to the site on university computers; they can track IP addresses of university students using school e-mails; and they can certainly make declarative, normative and moral judgments of 'what we do and what we do not do here,'" he said.

Coming in Through the Side Door

But for the broader public, combating reputation-damaging sites like Juicycampus can be time-consuming and inevitably futile.

Leslie Harris, a civil liberties attorney and president of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C., read through Juicycampus.com's terms of service at ABC News' request and said she does not believe that the site even violates consumer fraud statutes.

"They're trying to sort of come in from a side door under a state law,'' she said of New Jersey prosecutors. "I don't think it's the easiest case in the world to make. They're using state law to overcome federal law that has given protection to the site."

"It may [have been] different if the site's terms of service said 'we will aggressively police the site.' But there's nothing in the law that would require any site -- if it says in its terms of service that 'we do not permit the following types of content' -- there's nothing in the law that says you are required to enforce that in any aggressive way," she said.

What's more, Harris said, consumer fraud laws are set up to protect consumers of, in this case, a Web site. But it's not the site's users and posters that are being hurt, she said. It's the people about whom comments are written.

"Under their theory of the case, the consumer is not the user using the site, it's another consumer,'' who may not be using the site at all, she said.

Wendy Seltzer of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society also questioned the viability of a civil prosecution under the state's Consumer Fraud Act.

"What they're trying to avoid is the Communications Decency Act, which gives service providers like the folks at JuicyCampus a broad immunity liability from anything their users want to say on their site," Seltzer said.

"Media literacy is a much better answer than the government trying to shut it down,'' she said. "Letting people know 'this is a just a bunch of anonymous people spreading hate here, why are you putting any trust in what they say? Why don't instead you look at these sites?'''

Shot Across the Bow

But the New Jersey State Attorney General's Office may be less concerned with a successful civil prosecution of the site's owners than it is about pressuring the site into more self-regulation.

"What this amounts to is not an enforcement but pressure,'' Harvard Law professor John Palfrey said. "These are shots across the bow, telling these sites 'we care about this, and even if we don't have an explicit legal hook we're still going to be on your case."

Indeed, pressed about the viability of a civil prosecution, Milgram told ABC News that while she fully intends to go to trial if the subpoenas bear out the findings of her investigators, her office has in the past negotiated agreements with other sites that satisfied both sides and precluded a trial.

She said that one of her most pressing concerns about Juicycampus.com was the seeming inability of victims of malicious gossip to seek redress through the site.

Other sites that have been targeted by her office have agreed to create "Report Abuse'' icons that make it easier for complainants to contact the site and have offensive or abusive material removed, she said.

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