The Dirty on truth, freedom of speech and online shaming
The gossip site's lawyer explains why getting defamatory posts removed is so difficult
On Wednesday, CBC Hamilton ran a story about a woman who is just one of the hundreds of Hamiltonians who are featured on the immensely popular gossip site The Dirty.
Stephanie's post calls her "the biggest whore in Hamilton." Another post about a Hamilton woman says she's a "disgusting slut and deserves to get the sh-t kicked out of her."
The U.S. site is a kind of virtual equivalent to the men's room wall — a place where anonymous people can air their grievances about others unchecked — except there are photos and full names attached and the audience is the entire world.
We reached out to The Dirty's founder Nik Richie to answer questions about the site, and why it rarely honours removal requests. Here are the responses we received from the website's lawyer, David Gingras.
Q: We've written a story about someone who believes the person who wrote about her on The Dirty has also threatened her. Now the police are involved. In a situation like this, would you consider taking the post down if they asked?
A: Even though we are not legally obligated to remove third party content upon request, TheDirty.com has always had removal policy that is far more lenient – if someone is the victim of a false post on our site, they can have it removed simply by proving the truth in court.
If a person obtains a court order or judgment showing that something in a post is false, TheDirty is generally happy to assist by removing the content. This is true even though foreign libel judgments are typically not entitled to recognition in the United States.
On the other hand, the mere fact that someone has made an unproven claim to law enforcement would probably not justify removing a post.
We have absolutely no way of knowing whether the post is true or false, and we have no way of knowing whether the alleged threats were true or false.
People can, and do, frequently lie to the police, so no, we would generally not remove a post simply because something thinks that a post was submitted by someone who later made threats against them.
Q: As your FAQ states, do you get a lot of requests from Canada? I understand that a court order from Canada is essentially meaningless in a civil defamation case.
A: Yes, a substantial percentage of our removal requests are from Canada. About 15 per cent of our web traffic is from Canada, but Canada represents probably 50 per cent (or more) of the removal requests we receive.
I can only speculate as to the reasons, but I see major cultural differences that probably explain why so many removal requests are from Canada.
Canadians seem to have sharply different attitudes towards free speech than Americans.
In America, we understand from a very young age that free speech is subject to strong legal protections, even when the words are rude, hateful, or negative.
Accordingly, most Americans have learned to accept the fact that people are allowed to criticize each other – that's just part of life. We accept this as part of the cost of living in a free society.
Canadians seem to have a very different attitude. While many Americans have learned to ignore criticism, Canadians – for lack of a better term – seem to freak out when someone makes the slightest offensive comment about them.
I think this is often counter-productive since the purpose of online criticism is usually to get a reaction from the target.
When someone over-reacts to an online post, this rewards the author and shows that the target is vulnerable to this sort of attack.
The much better approach is to simply ignore online criticism/bullying.
Q: I see the portion about having to send in your medical records to disprove STD claims — doesn't that seem invasive?
A: How so? Are you suggesting that we should operate on the honor system instead? Look, if a person makes an allegation in court, they are required to submit evidence to support their position.
While asking people to submit medical records (or other forms of evidence) may seem a little invasive, this is a very small price to pay in return for TheDirty helping that person remove false information from the site.
Again, bear in mind – TheDirty is under no legal obligation to remove anything, so the fact that the site is willing to consider removing anything is a good thing, isn't it?
Q: The onus here seems to lie totally on people who have things posted about them to prove they aren't true. Why doesn't the onus also exist to prove they are true at the outset when posting them?
A: This question is really misleading on so many levels. Seriously, this sort of attitude (which we encounter a lot) is really disappointing because it's reckless, dishonest, and completely misrepresents how things work on the Internet.
First of all, this question implies that users can post false information online with impunity. This is 100% wrong.
If someone posts false information on the site, they may face extremely serious legal consequences for doing so. Users who post false information can face civil lawsuits for damages, and in certain cases they can be criminally prosecuted.
So, to imply that users are not under any obligation to post only truthful information is either completely dishonest or completely ignorant.
The truth is that all website users are always under a legal obligation to only post truthful information, and if someone breaks the law, they can be held accountable for their actions.
Second, what alternative would you propose? You apparently think that no one should be allowed to post anything on the Internet unless the website owner first fact-checks every word before it's published? Do you think that's realistic? Is that how Twitter, Facebook, Instagram work?
If you think that websites should never allow user-generated content unless it is fact-checked, then I assume you must think that task is simple. Right now there are about 160,000 unique posts and more than 5 million comments on TheDirty.com. If you think that fact checking all of this content is easy, please let me know when you can get started on that project.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.