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Topix CEO: ‘We generally favor the rights of people to speak’

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Editor’s note: Topix CEO Chris Tolles contacted Roane County News reporter Damon Lawrence this month for a story Lawrence was working on about Topix.com. Here is part of their conversation.
Lawrence: Some complain your website let’s users post slanderous and defamatory comments anonymously and people that are being talked about have no recourse. What’s your response to that?
Tolles:
I would say that one, if they have any issues with what’s on our site, we run a review section. I have 20 percent of my company resources assigned to taking care of any sort of problems that come in.
We read every single piece of feedback that comes into the site within two business days, so we remove thousands of comments both in our automated way when we can detect language that is inappropriate as well as actually taking care of things by hand if we can see them.
There are a lot of times that people are aggrieved and they are very tense, but a comment itself, it doesn’t look to us as something that needs to be removed. It’ll be something that affects them deeply, but it’s difficult for us to see, ‘Hey, why is this something that’s inappropriate?’
And so trying to balance out the issues of providing a robust place for people to comment about the news in their community and dealing with people who have a hard time with what’s being said about them, there’s some tension.
We take out things that are libel per se, things that are on their face libelous, but sometimes people don’t like what’s being said about them, especially businesses or local government officials tend to not want to have people talking about them.
You got to consider the source. Also, oftentimes people get into something where they’re getting back-and-forth with someone and at some point in time they start complaining about the other person’s actions and we go look and they’ve given as good as they’ve got, so we take all these things into consideration when we take care of things.
We certainly provide a platform for contesting something on the site.

L: What would you say to people who also complain that these forums promote cyber bullying?
T:
Do they promote cyber bullying? What does that mean?

L: Right now someone can go on Topix, create a fake name and if there’s a neighbor down the street or someone they don’t like, out of spite they can start a forum claiming they saw that person beating their wife.
T:
I think most of the cyber bullying statutes have to do with going after someone online. For example, trying to connect with them, sending them email, going out of their way to communicate with you.
We don’t provide that. We’re not giving you a way to reach out to someone. It comes down to we provide an open platform for a community.
Certainly, some people misuse it, which is why we provide a pretty robust way to get in touch with us to be able to take care of things.
However, there’s also a lot of interesting conversations going on and so it turns out that for some people, they’re going to be unhappy with those conversations.
Should, for example, you get to discuss a high school football coach’s performance? Chances are the high school football coach does not want to be discussed. Where do I get to talk about that guy? Don’t we have a right as Americans to talk about whomever we want as long as it doesn’t become libelous?

L: There is a right to free speech, but there are also laws against defamation and slander.
T:
There’s libel per se, like if someone calls someone a child molester, in which case if someone complains about it we take it down, no questions asked.
If, on the other hand, it’s a much more complex issue, then it’s like hey, we have to read it and sort of try to figure out whether that’s reasonable or not.
Who’s feelings should I favor? We generally favor the rights of people to speak. As long as it’s not something that’s on its face libel, we tend to allow it in the discussion.
No one likes being gossiped about, but there’s a lot of gossip that doesn’t rise to the level of libel. It’s just stuff that people don’t want to have talked about.
That being said, we take in feedback from people, and we’ll be happy to take things out, and we take things out all the time. We take down nearly 15 percent of all the content that comes in based on feedback from our own automated systems.

L: Why do you all let people post comments under pseudonyms? Why don’t you all make people use their real name if they want to comment about someone?
T:
How is that different than any other site on the web? Your Facebook profile, it can be anonymous. Twitter provides total ability to comment anonymously. How is that different than any other site on the Internet?

L: When I write a story about someone, I put my real name and real email address on it.
T:
Does your newspaper allow comments online?
L: Yes, we do.
T:
How are you handling anonymous commentary? What are you really doing that’s preventing people from commenting anonymously? Are you requiring them to give a driver’s license?
If you’re actually requiring people to register and give an email address, a lot of people register with a pseudonym. I will bet you most people who are commenting on your site are also anonymous. It’s not much different than most sites on the Net. There are a lot of large social platforms – Twitter, Tumblr. Most online commentary sites allow for pseudonyms.

L: What prompted you all to start forums on Topix?
T:
There are around 25,000 stories a day that we can find that are local. You divide that by the 20,000 cities and towns in the country and there just isn’t enough news, so it turns out for little towns in Tennessee, there’s not enough news to make an interesting site, so we gave people the ability to start commenting and putting in their own news stories and that turns out to be much more interesting.
We’re now one of the larger sites on the Net dealing with small towns. Now a lot of that news is gossip, stuff that not everybody is happy about, but I’ll bet you there are a lot of stories you write that have [upset] people ... . It’s very subjective to whether that’s labeled journalism on it. You wrap yourself in the flag, and it’s really great.
If it’s gossip, well that’s really bad, but it turns out it’s kind of the same thing. I’m not saying what we have is journalism, but it is news.

L: Are you concerned about lawsuits?
T:
Congress created this law [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act] years ago, and basically if you run an interactive computer service, the people who are responsible legally for their commentary are the people who write it.
For example, if you make a computer service responsible for comments, does that mean that Apple is responsible if you read something on your iPhone, AT&T for carrying that message?
Is it us for providing a platform for someone? No, the responsibility for that is the person who wrote it. Now, getting to that person might be slightly tricky, trickier than it would be in a newspaper, but it’s not that tricky.
It turns out that, for the most part, there are people who have been libeled online, and they’ve sued people that have sort of been anonymously commenting. The chain of evidence eventually points back to them.

L: You don’t have any qualms about what you all do?
T:
No. Why would we? You’re coming at it like we’re doing something wrong, it sounds like. Your question contains a narrative.
The primary narrative in news is the villain is harming the victim, so who am I in this story? It’s not that I’m the villain. Twitter provides a much larger service, which provides a much wider depth of content. You can go onto Twitter and find things that I would take off my site. What’s your story about?

L: There is a lawyer in one of the towns we cover named Donice Butler who said she’s considering filing a lawsuit against Topix because of the comments that have been posted about her on the site.
T:
Let me point out that this person is an attorney. She has the ability to create a lawsuit at no personal cost to herself. She doesn’t have to hire an attorney. She can be one herself. She’s probably a pretty powerful local figure.
One question is how can someone confront this person if they’re an attorney? I would say that we provide a service to that person that needs to speak without fear of repercussion as long as they stay within the lines.
If this attorney feels that she’s been libeled because someone has cast aspersions on her mores, she can go off, and she can sue that person and get a court order to try to have that person’s name come out and then she can take them to court. That’s her right to do that.
She can also try to communicate with us. I don’t know if she has or not, but if she tries to get in touch with us and say, ‘Hey, these things are libelous, please remove them.’ If she’s done that and we’ve failed, that’s one thing, but if she hasn’t done that, it’s hard for us to comment.

L: How would you feel if someone posted something on Topix about you?
T:
People do it all the time. For the most part, I leave most of it, and I have the ability to take it down myself, I’ll point out. I generally don’t, unless it’s libelous.
There’s a lady who is out there accusing me of being in hand-in-hand with the NSA and all sorts of crazy stuff. People slam us all the time. Sometimes on Topix, sometimes on Twitter, sometimes on other sites.
If it’s not libelous, it’s like it is what it is. There are people who have a very negative opinion of our site, but for the most part, I kind of practice what I preach.
Only when it rises to the occasion of true libel or people are trying to interfere with our business, at that point in time I might take some action, and that happens occasionally.