Peeple: The Legal Vulnerabilities of the New People-Rating App

October 6, 2015

A new app announced this past week reignited the debate between free speech and cyberbulling.

Peeple, “the terrifying ‘Yelp for people,’” allows users to review everyone they know, ranging from friends, co-workers, former lovers, or acquaintances.

Reviews consist of a one-to five-star rating and comments. Co-founders, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, suggest the app will allow individuals to “showcase your character” and sift through individuals to trust with your kids. As of last week, the company is valued at $7.6 million.
However, since last week’s announcement, Peeple has received little support. Critics denounce several of Peeple’s features. First, you cannot opt out once your name is added to the Peeple system. This means individuals are not able to control whether their name is featured on the site. According to Peeple’s Frequently Asked Questions page, users will only need someone else’s cell phone number in order to start someone else’s profile. Second, users and non-users alike will have to jump through hoops to get negative reviews removed. Specifically, Peeple will only remove negative reviews if they violate Peeple’s terms. While Peeple’s terms and conditions, seek to protect private information, such as medical or heath information, these protections barely scratch the surface of user’s privacy concerns. Despite public disapproval, Peeple is still on track for their November launch date.
In addition to the host of complaints individuals have posed in the past week, legal experts suggest the app could face many legal problems as well. Free Speech Attorney, Lee Rowland, suggests the app “is fully protected by the First Amendment.” Additionally, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act would likely protect Peeple from lawsuits pertaining to users inability to opt out of the website. However, the app could still be liable. First, Peeple’s method of collecting cell phone numbers (of unwilling and unsuspecting individuals) could be regulated by the United States Federal Trade Commission or state-level agencies. Second, Peeple could potentially violate child-protection laws and be vulnerable to lofty civil penalties. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires consent from a parent for information posted online if a child is under the age of 13. Peeple could still be liable under this act, despite Peeple’s 21 and over term and condition. This term is easy to manipulate and difficult to enforce if phone numbers of children are posted, especially with the no opt-out mechanism.
Other legal professionals are concerned with Peeple’s design to defame and bully. While Peeple and co-founders, Cordray and McCullough, are protected under the Communications Decency Act in the United States; the App’s users may not find the same protection. Because users are “private citizens rather than public figures, a defamation case can be substantiated as long as the comment can be prove to be false and the person who wrote it was acting negligently, regardless of whether the poster knew the information to be inaccurate.” As a result, Peeple users could be “vulnerable to legal risk.”
Additionally, as other countries are looking into Peeple’s legality, Peeple could also be liable for defamatory comments. For example, Canadian legal experts suggest the app will fare differently in Canada than in the United States. Canada’s defamation laws hold the publisher equally responsible as the person who wrote the defamatory message.
While Cordray, said the site has “no plans to break privacy laws” and Peeple will not “participate in breaking laws anywhere we operate,” it is apparent Peeple’s legal team has their work cut out for them.