Misrepresentation by JuicyCampus?

The AP reports:

New Jersey prosecutors have subpoenaed records of, a Web site that publishes anonymous, often malicious gossip about college students.

Language on the site ranges from catty to hateful and offensive. One thread, for example, on the "most overrated Princeton student" quickly dissolves into name-calling, homophobia and anti-Semitism.

JuicyCampus may be violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act by suggesting that it doesn't allow offensive material but providing no enforcement of that rule -- and no way for users to report or dispute the material, New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said Tuesday....

The attorney general has also subpoenaed the Web site's advertising agency, Adbrite, to determine how JuicyCampus represented its operation and what advertising keywords the site requested....

Can anyone tell me, please, just what JuicyCampus has been saying that is supposedly a misrepresentation?

I agree that speakers and service providers are bound by their contracts, including contracts not to say or host certain things. They may also in some situations be bound by explicit promises they make in their advertising. But it would obviously be dangerous to have them be liable for broadly "suggesting" certain things. Imagine a state Attorney General prosecuting the New York Times for "suggesting that it" is fair and accurate, and investigating whether they've defrauded consumers because of supposed bias and error. (No, seriously, that sort of prosecution would be bad.)

Likewise, imagine an attorney general going after us for "suggesting" with our comment policy that we'd delete offensive comments, but then not doing a good enough job of deleting them. Of course, we don't say we'll delete offensive comments (we try to discourage such comments, and we may delete them, but we never say we will), but who knows what someone might think we suggest? So can anyone report on what exactly JuicyCampus said that might have been false or misleading?

You might be overreading the word "suggest" and underreading--ignoring--the word "may."

If they purport to moderate the board but don't moderate the board, that sounds like a misrepresentation.
3.20.2008 8:39pm
I went to the JuicyCampus site (so you don't have to!) to have a look at their terms of service. I have know way of knowing if the Terms have been recently modified, but they state explicitly that the site may or may not delete material from users who violate their rules (such as they are) on offensive posts.

So, if the site basically presented that to their advertisers, the NJ AG really has nothing to stand on here, even without getting into the larger issues that EV points out.

On the other hand, if the site, for some strange reason, sold itself to advertisers as a clean, family friendly website, then I guess that could be misrepresentation. But there is no suggestion the AG knows they did that, so he's clearly fishing here.
3.20.2008 8:43pm
Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
Seems like a rather bogus excuse for this exercise of police power to me. Who, exactly, is the consumer being protected? The determination of which comments are offensive and which have some social/political merit despite offense is inherently subjective. If AGs are going to pursue this theory of wrongdoing, it would be hard to imagine an internet forum that wouldn't sooner or later run afoul of it.

I think the site is vile. But as I said yesterday, I think the remedy for its vileness is (1) Googlebombing the founder and his henchmen, (2) using inventive internet research to identify as many rude posters as possible, then expose them at their respective schools, and (3) if schools have warned students that their school network internet traffic is not private, expose scummy posters through that method. (Arguably harsh. But want to be anonymous? Then don't use an institutional network when you've been warned your traffic is not private.)

But the governmental responses strike me as both dangerous and embarrassingly pretextual.
3.20.2008 9:19pm
DangerMouse (mail):
The reason the NJ AG is investigating this is probably because some politician's kid is on that website being talked about.

This is New Jersey we're talking about. It's INHERENTLY CORRUPT.
3.20.2008 9:40pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Well, now the site's popularity is really going to go through the roof. Why didn't the NJ AG consult Streisand first?
3.20.2008 9:48pm
Sid (mail) (www):
Let's see if VC will delete this comment:

Flith, fudge, golly gee, dang, son-of-a-gun, pickles, fart, snot, booger, gosh, heck, and dag-nab-it.

There. To a preschooler, this post contains all of the banned words.
3.20.2008 10:01pm
M. Python:
Shut your festering gob you tit! Your type makes me puke! You vacuous toffee-nosed malodorous pervert!
3.20.2008 11:14pm
Asher Steinberg (mail):
The founder went to my school. Basically, the whole thing is a huge discussion board about who slept with whom on Saturday night. A lot of it is pretty offensive. Here at Duke though, its popularity is dying down and I don't know that it ever became very popular at other campuses.
3.20.2008 11:59pm
Asher, if you didn't notice, the site is creaking under the weight of visitors. Prosecution almost invariably makes things more popular, not less.
3.21.2008 12:44am
Asher Steinberg (mail):
I'm sorry, I didn't make myself clear. Here we don't use it anymore, not at all, but we were the first school to get it; perhaps where it's newer it's still popular. I have no doubt that they've gotten some additional publicity from the prosecution, but that just wasn't possible here because they'd already reached saturation.
3.21.2008 3:15am
Lonetown (mail):
I know this blog does not delete comments because I've said offensive stuff like this:

and this:

and it was never deleted.
3.21.2008 6:52am
A. Zarkov (mail):
I went to the website and it took all of ten seconds to see exactly the kind of material being posted there. I didn't even understand a lot of the posts, which shows you how out of date I am. Why would someone even have to read the terms and conditions to see what's obviously allowed? Doesn't the New Jersey AG have better things to do with her time? Camden has the highest murder rate in the county (last time I looked at national statistics). The state has a fiscal crisis, and they waste resources on issues like this. Last one out of New Jersey turn out the light.
3.21.2008 7:00am
No one goes there any more, it's too crowded
- Yogi Berra
3.21.2008 8:42am
jdege (mail):
JuicyCampus may be violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act by suggesting that it doesn't allow offensive material but providing no enforcement of that rule


Seems to me that every business or government office that posts "no guns" signs but does nothing to ensure that the rule is followed is guilty of the same thing...
3.21.2008 9:35am
If a site claims it "may or may not delete" material that violates it's terms of use, and NEVER ONCE deletes such material over some period of time, I can see a reasonable claim that it's misleading, as "may or may not" indicates some intention of deletion.
3.21.2008 10:45am
Steve P. (mail):
Aultimer — that's an interesting reading. So 'may or may not' means 'at least once'?
3.21.2008 12:06pm
Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
It's an interesting linguistic question. If you say you "may or may not" do something, should you interpret that as (1) informing people to prepare for either eventuality, or (2) asserting that you have not excluded either possibility? If the former, the statement is not false, if the latter, it is false.

It reminds me of that murder and subsequent civil case involving a talk show -- Jenny Jones, I think. The murderer felt himself humiliated when the victim (another man) revealed a crush on the murderer on the show. During the civil suit asserting that the show was partially culpable for the murder, the plaintiffs pointed out that the show's producers had told the murderer that if he participated in the "find out who has a crush on you" show, the person with a crush might be a man or a woman. In fact, the producers already knew it was a man. The plaintiff argued that this statement was knowingly false; the producers argued that it should be interpreted as a "be prepared for either" statement.

I think context strongly influences the plausible interpretation. In the context of the internet, I expect moderation to be arbitrary and capricious. (That's not a slam on any particular site).
3.21.2008 1:02pm
ParatrooperJJ (mail):
No I think " may or may not" means we can delete if we choose and we may not delete if we choose.
3.21.2008 1:03pm
David Schwartz (mail):
That their policy is never to delete anything doesn't mean that they might not change the policy in the future. The only way saying they "may or may not" do something is deceptive is if they already had an irrevocable binding commitment one way or the other.

This is almost completely clearly a "we do what we want" clause.
3.21.2008 5:09pm