Peeple: Legal Lessons For App & Website Providers

Peeple, an app that has yet to take on its final form, has been causing quite a stir. The Canadian company behind the app (namely, its co-founder, Julia Cordray) has touted it as “Yelp for People.” But what are the legal concerns surrounding an app or website platform that can be used for negative purposes such as cyber-bullying and defamation?

What We Know About Peeple

We know that Peeple has caused a huge uproar and has been the subject of fiery media commentary. CNBC reported on the “human-rating app” last week, noting that the app allows for personal, professional, and romantic reviews. Early reviews on the site showed that Peeple users could assign reviews and ratings (similar to Yelp or Netflix’s “five-star” system) to anyone they know, and start profiles on behalf of other individuals. A Washington Post headline reads “Everyone you know will be able to rate you on the terrifying ‘Yelp for people’ — whether you want them to or not.” (Also in the Washington Post, writer Alexandra Petri highlighted Peeple’s pitfalls by composing “reviews” of characters from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.) Newsweek explored the notion that Peeple may be one big hoax, noting that rumors of the app’s launch have been taken on by myth-debunking site, Snopes.com.

We know that, as of the date of this post, the website www.forthepeeple.com calls for future Peeple users to “join the positive revolution” and allows for wannabe-users to sign up and test the beta version of the app (meaning that the full version has not launched yet). (Update: On October 7, 2015, the site appears to have been pulled down, once again.) However, as recent as Sunday, October 4, 2015, future users were told, via the FAQ section of Peeple’s own website, as follows:

peeple opt out policy

peeple comment deletion policy

The Peeple website went dark on October 5, 2015, until late afternoon on October 6, when the site was re-published as a very basic landing page, eliminating the entire FAQ section and eliminating the humble excerpt below, which appeared prominently in the previous edition of the site:

an ode to courage from peeple ceo

This excerpt poses a question: If Peeple is indeed intended to be a positivity app, how would such information “protect your children and your biggest assets”?

Despite Cordray’s apparent plea late last month asking how to prevent users from posting comments to a company’s Facebook page, she recently stated that Peeple won’t be “shamed into submission” by the public outcry against the app, and that Peeple will launch. She then lamented, in a LinkedIn Post, that she had become a trending topic for “all the wrong reasons,” and that Peeple is a “positivity app.” Corday has now done “a 180” and has gone on record citing imminent changes to the platform:

I have surrounded myself with positive people for 34 years and I don’t plan on changing it now. That’s why Peeple is focused on the positive and ONLY THE POSITIVE as a 100% OPT-IN system. You will NOT be on our platform without your explicit permission. There is no 48 hour [sic] waiting period to remove negative comments. There is no way to even make negative comments. Simply stated, if you don’t explicitly say “approve recommendation,” it will not be visible on our platform.

Though it remains unclear whether Peeple will, in fact, allow for the removal of negative comments or for users to “opt out” (as the current edition of the website makes no reference to any Terms of Use or other policy governing the app), it’s clear that Peeple smells of hypocrisy and flip-flopping, and that the app — at least in its original form — has the potential to be used for negative purposes. So, what are the legal considerations at play here? What’s the takeaway for app and software owners or operators?

Legal Considerations

From a strictly legal standpoint (read: legal, not public relations/public acceptance standpoint), there are three main considerations for an owner or operator of a forum-like app or website like Peeple: copyright infringement, defamation, and right to privacy. First, copyright infringement is always a concern when an app or website allows for the posting of comments, posts, photographs, and other content by its users. As to defamation, one can certainly see the potential for a site like this to make false and/or defamatory statements that negatively reflect on a person’s reputation. Along a similar vein, as with all social media platforms, there’s the potential for cyber-bullying, or speech that is vulgar, hateful, threatening, or excessively violent. Finally, and specifically in the case of Peeple, there are right to privacy or “intrusion upon seclusion” concerns in using someone’s name and/or photograph or otherwise intruding on his or her private affairs or concerns without that person’s consent (if Peeple does move forward in allowing others to create profiles for individuals without their consent). Balance the foregoing concerns with First Amendment free speech considerations, and you’ve got yourself a big pot of legal issues that have to find a way to play nice and allow for folks to actually use the app or website while affording the owner or operator with some protection.

The Takeaway for Developers

In order to take advantage of the safe harbors afforded to online service providers by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or “DMCA”), the owner or operator of any app or website that invites third party commentary, posts, or statements should consider registering a DMCA Agent with the U.S. Copyright Office. The DMCA limits the liability of online service providers for any copyright infringement committed by its users, so long as the service provider 1) registers an agent with the Copyright Office, 2) posts and adheres to a Copyright Policy or Intellectual Property Policy, and 3) posts and adheres to a strong Terms of Service agreement (the safe harbor provided by the DMCA does nothing to protect online service providers that do not act in accordance with their policies). This way, if a user uploads a copyright-protected photograph that does not belong to him or her, the owner/operator could be relieved of liability for copyright infringement.

It is also usually in an owner/operator’s best interest to craft strong Terms of Service that limit its liability for photos, text, and other content posted by its users. A worthwhile Terms of Service agreement will clearly state prohibited uses, including the posting of speech or other material that is unlawful, threatening, abusive, defamatory, and/or excessively violent, and material that impersonates another. The Terms of Service should require use of the site or the app in accordance with applicable law at the state or federal level.

Here’s the kicker, though: it usually is in the best legal interest of the owner/operator to reserve the right to refuse or revoke access to the service, but to make no guarantees that it will edit or delete another user’s content. Just as a provider might not want to guarantee uninterrupted access to the site or app 24/7, a provider might put itself in a precarious position if it affirmatively promises to remove all content that does not adhere to its Terms of Service. Doing so requires an affirmative act that could be akin to censorship, thus taking away a site’s position that it acts only as a forum and has limited liability.

Do these things make apps like Peeple more likable or acceptable? Well, that’s not a legal question. But, in general, they provide a safety net for the operators of the apps and websites we use on a daily basis.

Hungry for more fun with Terms of Service? Click here to read about last week’s viral Facebook hoax.