Seeking Justice Against Bad Business — Blogosphere Style

mob-justice2a.jpgA few weeks ago, Sony BMG suffered a public relations nightmare sparked by a blogger for its use of hidden DRM software in people’s computers. The latest company to face the wrath of the blogosphere is PriceRitePhoto.com, an online merchant of cameras. From Online Media Daily:

The blogger . . . wrote on his blog, Digital Connection, that a PriceRitePhoto.com sales rep tried to sell him accessories he didn’t want, and then when he refused, told him the camera he had ordered was out of stock–an experience that many other customers report having in customer reviews on Yahoo! Shopping and PriceGrabber.com.

The call became heated, the blogger said, when he told the rep he was going to write an article about the experience for his blog. “I told him I was planning to write an article about it. That’s all I said. Immediately the guy went ballistic on me,” he said in a telephone interview.

He posted an account of his experience on Digital Connection, and also mentioned that he had found the retailer through Yahoo! Shopping. As of Wednesday, PriceRitePhoto.com still appeared on Yahoo! Shopping with a rating of four stars out of a possible five, but by Thursday, the site had been delisted.

He also posted a link to the story on a community-driven news site, Digg.com, and the story ballooned from there. The blog, Digital Connection, which regularly receives roughly 5,000 unique visitors per day, garnered over 125,000 visits on Wednesday and Thursday.

Howard Baker, a manager with PriceRitePhoto.com, said the business had suffered “millions of dollars” worth of damages in the last two days, apparently at the hands of consumer vigilantes who had read the Digital Connection post.

“In the last couple of days there was one disgruntled customer that posted a blog that caused thousands of people to come out of the woodwork and jam our Web site,” said Baker–citing viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and thousands of prank calls. . . .

There are also issues about whether PriceRitePhoto.com’s online reviews had been gamed prior to this incident:

Despite hundreds of negative, one-star reviews posted on PriceGrabber.com and Yahoo! Shopping, PriceRitePhoto.com managed to maintain a high rating–four stars out of five on both sites–in part due to hundreds of equally positive, five-star reviews. The vast majority of the reviews posted on the shopping aggregator sites were either one star or five stars; few reviews told of a middling experience with the company. Yahoo! declined to speculate how the merchant maintained a four-star rating with a legion of one-star comments; a company spokesperson confirmed that Yahoo! Shopping removed PriceRitePhoto.com from its listings after an investigation.

PriceRitePhoto.com isn’t alone. Companies that mistreat customers are finding themselves attacked in the blogosphere:

Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of buzz-monitoring firm Intelliseek, likened PriceRitePhoto.com’s blogosphere drubbing to the “Dell Hell” saga documented on Buzz Machine, the Web log of media figure Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis wrote about a bad experience he had with computer giant Dell’s customer service, creating an avalanche of negative comments about Dell and bringing to light hundreds of bad consumer experiences with Dell’s support staff.

“Moral of the story: this is a new age of accountability,” Blackshaw said. “We’re in a new consumer surveillance society where ostensibly benign and sneaky misdeeds are magnified for broader audiences.”

Blackshaw added that companies must be careful with their reputations on the Web, where a single consumer with a blog–even a relatively low-trafficked one–can catalyze a huge backlash on the blogosphere. “Credibility is fragile in the age of consumer-generated media, and none of us are immune to this,” he said. “The merchant makes a claim. The blogger puts it to the torture test, outs the contradiction, and the viral network does the rest of the dirty work.”

Using the blogosphere to attack bad business practices can certainly be a good thing. It gives people a forum to vent and makes companies more accountable. Recently, Eugene Volokh (law, UCLA) wrote about his abominable customer service with Dell, a company that in its advertisements touts its wondeful customer service. The post attracted numerous comments and links. Here, Dell mistreated the wrong customer, one who has a blog with tens of thousands of readers, many of whom are likely to buy or own computers. Instead of just being pushed around over the telephone by people reading from scripts and with little authority to do anything, customers can stand up for themselves and perhaps make the companies listen.

On the other hand, the justice meted out can quickly spiral out of control. It is one thing to criticize a company, but quite another to shut down or hack its website. The problem with justice on the Net is that it can often spiral into mob justice. The difficulty is, of course, finding the right balance between using the Internet to give consumers greater power and preventing attacks from being unjustly lodged or careening out of control.

Related Posts:

1. Solove, Sony DRM: Singing the Blues

2. Solove, Sony DRM and the Power of the Blogosphere

3. Solove, Of Privacy and Poop: Norm Enforcement Via the Blogosphere

4. Solove, Internet Shaming Redux: The Case of the Stolen Cell Phone

5. Solove, Fox News and Vigilante Justice Gone Bad (PrawfsBlawg)

6. Solove, Telephone Menu Cheat Cheat

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16 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Dan, isn’t this a form of e-shaming? How is your approval of this consistent with your general disapproval of e-shaming?

  2. Adam says:

    Dan,

    I’m not sure I share your concern about mob justice in the form of angry bloggers. (Angry skilled hackers is another matter.) What exactly is “mob justice” on the internet? A crowd of people waving web browsers? Angry bloggers complaining about poor service ? Those companies that are most vulnerable to angry bloggers will be those who have lots of upset customers. If a company has made a business decisions that leaving customers upset is a good idea, then a flare-up becomes a business risk. Airlines and cell phone companies will be more vulnerable than, say, L.L. Bean or MBNA, both of whom consider great customer service to be part of how they attract and retain customers.

    Now if you’ll pardon me, I have a post about my cell phone company I need to write.

  3. Mike — this is indeed a form of e-shaming, but all shaming isn’t equal. The reasons I disapprove of shaming individuals involve considerations that affect individuals differently than businesses. I need to better sketch out the differences here, but I strongly believe that we should protect individuals more than businesses when it comes to harmful speech. That doesn’t mean that businesses should get no protection, but that they should get less.

    Adam — Mob justice on the Internet is the tendency of people to exaggerate and pile on invective rather than engage in a fair and proportional attack. This stems from group-polarizing effects and other aspects of the psychology of crowds — it leads to a tendency to be over-the-top and unfair. That said, I’m fine with a business getting critiqued. But in this case, that devolved into people then attacking the company’s website and engaging in potentially illegal activities. Criticism turned into vigilantism.

    Thus, my post is about how the Internet can establish a good balance between collective criticism without it devolving into vigilantism.

  4. Mike says:

    Dan, I look forward to seeing you flesh out your ideas. I hope it’s more than a continuation of the big-corporations-are-bad meme. Mob justice can ruin a corporation, and thus, bankrupt the people behind the business.

    Are you going to distinguish between mom-and-pop shops and megacompanies? Injury to a person’s feelings vs. injuries to a person’s bottom line? If so, be careful. I’ve been broke before, and not having a enough money harms a person much much more than a few nasty things said about him on a website.

    I’d rather have peope saying nasty things about me and being able to make rent; than having people say nothing (or sweet things) about me and not being able to make rent. Let’s take, e.g., the Korean-dog-crap incident. What would be more harmful to her – her photo is online, or her business is bankrupt? I’ll be that (almost) anyone who has ever lived through financial hopelessness would prefer having their personal feelings hurt than having their finances drained. (Of course, sometimes e-shaming leads to financial ruin.)

    So please be careful not to underestimate the psychological toll financial ruin brings on a person when arguing why picking on companies but not people is bad. (I’ll put aside my belief that the company-person dichotomy is false.)

  5. Bruce says:

    I’ve often wondered about those ratings, and have relied upon them perhaps 30 to 50 times (so far without incident), but I was hoping that the major aggregator sites (Yahoo, CNET, Epinions, etc.) had some mechanism for combating gaming. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky.

    On the shaming thing, I think the difficulty of consumer complaints on the web is that there is no easy way to judge their typicality — it could be one voice among thousands, or just a lone idiot who expects too much. The latter can cause harm to a business — particularly a small business — that it doesn’t deserve.

  6. Mike,

    I agree with you that the damage to companies can be severe, especially small businesses, and that’s why I’m not saying that it isn’t important.

    One of the primary differences is that although people readily change and reform their behavior, they are often still tied down by their pasts, and thus having a permanent scarlet letter can be very limiting to people’s freedom. The damage is certainly great for companies, but they can more readily improve their services, products, and image. Sometimes companies change their names, such as TRW, a credit reporting agency that became Experian:

    TRW, like Retail Credit, moved to shed its corporate name of the bad publicity, unhappy customers, Congressional hearings, and lawsuits that were inherent in credit reporting. It sold an 84-percent interest in TRW Information Systems to two Boston speculators for roughly $1.01 billion in February 1996. The new company hired the same corporate makeover firm that invented “Exxon” and “Xerox.” The consultants, who apparently favor Xs, suggesed the new name of “Experian” — to suggest “experience and expertise.”

    Robert Ellis Smith, Ben Franklin’s Website: Privacy and Curiosity from Plymouth Rock to the Internet 327 (2000).

    There’s also Altria Group. Philip Morris changed its name to Altria Group to prevent a name associated with cigarettes from tainting the other subsidiaries (Kraft, Oreo, Ritz). The tobacco companies are still called Philip Morris, but the parent’s name is now Altria Group.

    Companies often undergo makeovers and can successfully refurbish their reputations. We understand that companies can readily change with a new change in management or business philosophy. I believe that individuals have a harder time of escaping from their past misdeeds.

    As for defamation, it is certainly true that this can be immensely costly to a business, and I am perfectly fine with businesses resorting to defamation lawsuits to protect themselves. But one must be careful to protect a customer’s opinion about a company’s customer service and product. So if lies are being told about a product, that’s defamation, but not a customer review or opinion. Moreover, I am deeply skeptical of the food libel laws, which often seem to be used as a way to stifle legitimate discourse rather than address harmful false information that normal channels of discourse cannot readily fix.

  7. Paul Gowder says:

    Mike:

    1. Companies (particularly big ones) have more opportunity for counterspeech. (Advertisements, etc.) Company:Shaming :: Public Figure:Defamation.

    2. Companies are less amenable to the normal punishments that we use against people instead of shaming (can’t jail a company, and fines have to be proprtionally much higher to deter).

    3. Shaming of people has both financial (i.e. loss of job and business opportunities) and personal (humiliation, abuse) consequences. Shaming of companies has only financial consequences, ’cause, yuh know, companies ain’t human. (Do you think the korean dog shit person kept her job?)

    4. When shaming occurs relative to a business transaction, there’s another word for it: information. In a free market, we like participants to have information. Presumably, a “ruined” business that falls to shaming based on its bad consumer practices will give way to a business that has better consumer practices. This is called capitalism.

  8. Mike says:

    Paul:

    1. Not true in today’s era of the Internet and blogs. I’m sure that the Korean dog crap girl would have gotten a lot of links if she had started a blog explaining her conduct.

    2. But see Arthur Andersen. Talk to a few white collar criminal lawyers representing companies. Companies are terrified are being put out of business through the criminal system. This fear has manifested itself in many ways. Google [deputizing corporate counsel].

    3. If you admit that shaming is bad in part because of its financial consequences, they you have to concede that harmful financial consequences should be considered a factor in analyzing whether and to what extent shaming is appropriate. Thus, you don’t disagree what I wrote above.

    4. Nice try — This is spin. “Information” about private individuals is valuable for the same reasons its valuable about businesses. Say I meet someone and consider going on a date with her. I then learn she lets her dog crap on subways. I’m not going to go on that date. Why not? Because she is probably a sociopath, and sociopaths can cause a lot of damage in personal relationships. I dated a sociopath once. Bad news, man.

  9. Paul Gowder says:

    1. Maybe. Only if you assume that the way that the internet distributes eyeballs is well-functioning. What would she have to do to get people to notice her blog? Start wearing a t-shirt? “I’m the dog shit girl and http://woofwoof.blogspot.com explains why!” ???

    2. Arthur Andersen = “dog bites man.”

    3. Of course I don’t disagree with what you wrote above, except insofar as I think that it really is LESS of a concern with companies than with people.

    4. But very few people are going to need that information about our friend with the dog, and sociopathy is relatively more obvious from an interaction (you have a good chance at knowing she’s a sociopath after a couple of dates). On the other hand, the only way to know that a business has lousy customer service absent “shaming” is to get burned, and public information about a major business’s customer service is likely to help a lot more people, since many people use, for example, fedex or american airlines.

  10. Mike says:

    Paul:

    Initially, let me say this: I support (or at least don’t oppose) e-shaming at all levels. If a person does an evil deed, or a company gives poor service, people have a right to know about this. It can prevent psychological and financial harm.

    E-shaming (combined with Google) creates a public record of a person’s vile conduct. Why do you oppose such information dissemenation? Why would you want to prevent potential victims from learning about these bad people? People will know that the dog-crap girl is a bad person, and hopefully not associate with her. Or, at least, they can be fully informed. All e-shaming does is full inform one person about another person or company before associating with that person or company. How could anyone oppose

    1. Maybe she had a good reason for her conduct. She could have given that reason. If she lacked a good reason, then she got what she deserved – everyone learned that she is socially unresponsible.

    2. In your most recent Point No. 2, you write:

    “2. Arthur Andersen = “dog bites man.” However, if a company getting indicted is indeed a dog-bites-man story, then why did you previous Point No. 2 say this: “Companies are less amenable to the normal punishments ….” This seems self-contradictory. Either companies are “amenable to the normal punishments,” or they aren’t. Which is it?

    3. If we can find a way to eliminate your bias against corporations, I suspect we would disagree at the margins.

    4. I don’t know the name of the dog-crap girl. I don’t care to learn it. But if I Googled someone’s name, and something like the dog-crap story came up, you bet I’d ask the person about it. That’s all a Google record does. It doesn’t mean anything until a person Googles another person. So while it’s out there in the Internet, it’s available only to active participants. (I.e., those who likely need to know whether they’re about to associate with a vile person.)

  11. Paul Gowder says:

    I’m not so deeply against the shaming of individuals, really, except that in certain extreme cases, I feel a little empathy for the victim. Can you imagine what it must be like to walk down the street and be known as the dog-shit girl? Everyone makes mistakes, and, granted, letting your dog defecate on the subway and not cleaning it up is a pretty egregious mistake, but who knows what was going on with her? She might have just come from the doctor, who told her she has six months to live. She might have come home to find a process server with divorce papers. She might be mentally ill. She might have just done one really obnoxious, but not all that harmful when it comes right down to it, bad thing in her life. And blammo, infinite internet notoreity. http://www.youhavenofriends.com.

    If being able to feel empathy for humans and not for nonexistent pathological financio-legal collective hallucinations is a “bias against corporations,” then so be it… and this isn’t changed by the fact that there are humans behind the corporations. As you have no reason to recall, I vigorously argued that very point with Ethan on prawfs in response to his recent contracts article. But here’s the difference that’s relevant here: in a competitive marketplace, there will still be demand for the services that corporation provides! If corporation A has 100 employees and crappy service, so they get shamed and go broke, there will be unmet demand. Corporation B will come along to fill it, and they’ll employ 100 employees. Net harm = 0.

    The same can not be said for the kind of shaming that the poor Korean woman suffered.

    That being said, let me defend my “bias against corporations” a little more.

    2. There’s no contradiction. The inefficaciousness of the criminal system against corporations comes in part because serious criminal indictments against corporations only happen for Arthur Anderssen scale misconduct. They also come about because corporations have the capability to commit different kinds of misconduct than normal people, and some of them are inappropriately non-criminalized. For example, if I steal thousands of dollars from a little old lady, it’s called “burglary.” If a corporation does it, more often than not it’s called “predatory lending.” One is criminal. The other is not. Yet both are equally harmful and equally immoral.

    4. As I recall, weren’t people coming up to her on the street? Presumably, not every random passer-by had taken the trouble to google her first.

  12. Mike says:

    Paul, I suspect we do disagree only at the margins. I also feel a lot of empathy for her, but at the end of the day, what is the solution?

    I have had similar thoughts about sex-offender registries. Some people on there absolutely do not “deserve” to be on there. (Think the reader letter I recently reproduced.) But a good portion do. With SO registries, one solution would be requiring an individualized hearings; and removing people who shouldn’t be on there. This is possible since the government is in charge of one central registry; so it would be easier to regulate the dissemination of such information.

    But what is the solution in the private context? There is no central database. There are thousands of speakers.

    Show me a workable solution, and I might adopt your point of view. As it is now, I don’t see a good solution short of widespread censorship. (And, no, I am not saying: “I can’t find a solution, so screw it.” I’m saying that in the absence of a solution, the presumption should be in favor of free speech.)

  13. Paul Gowder says:

    Mike: re your last comment, I agree totally. It’s actually quite scary how many things we agree on in the end 🙂

  14. gvibes says:

    I don’t think this is really news at all.

    1. There are a ton of scam companies like priceritephoto.com, often located in New York or New Jersey (some eventually “go “legit,” like B&H Photo or J and R). If someone does two seconds of research (and anyone who doesn’t research a store online before buying from it the first time of questionable intelligence), they would find out that it’s a scam outfit. If you post a “deal” from sites like priceritephoto.com to sites like slickdeals.net or fatwallet.com, you will get laughed off the site immediately.

    2. The information to make informed buying decisions is out there and easily available. I have been using resellerratings.com since the late 90’s. People typically only get scammed through a lack of diligence.

  15. Amie says:

    There is no accountability for the people (companies) who jack up the ratings unfairly. I’d like to see online sites like Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and the like only allow people who have purchased the items from their site to comment on the items they bought. If left with those strict parameters, there would be a halt to the ratings gouging that occurs today.

    To the comment posted above, B&H was never UN-legit. It’s been a real store you can shop at for YEARS. And they run a tight ship there. No, I don’t work there. I’m sure you’re thinking that. But I’ve shopped there and had film developed there and there’s nothing scam-ish about the place. It’s very well run and they usually have the best prices and don’t hassle you to buy other junk with your purchase.