United States: Jeepers, Creepers: The Launch Of The New "Peeple" App And Privacy Concerns

Last Updated: October 13 2015
Article by Jeremy D. Freeman and Stephen B. Sandover

It's 12:43 in the morning, and you have had a tough day at work. You are tired, thinking slowly, and feeling a little anxious that you should already be in bed to catch some rest before a 6 a.m. wake-up call. And then you get a text from a random number. You check it. It is from some equally random app called "Peeple." The text states that a mysterious individual has written a review about you on Peeple's website. Your anxiety level instantly rises. You don't know this person; you don't know what Peeple is. How did they get your cell number? You decide to check the review and it isn't about your business. It's about you. Personally. You look at the clock. It's 1:06 a.m. and now you can't sleep.

A firestorm has erupted regarding the launch of a new app called Peeple, scheduled for release in November 2015. Its catchphrase of "Character is Destiny" is similar to that of a motivational poster displaying a gigantic snow-capped mountain from the mid-1980s with the word "Challenge" underneath. It's riveting stuff. Media backlash against Peeple has been vicious since awareness of the app gained traction last week. Even 14th century poetry was referenced, with one article describing Peeple as akin to Dante's Inferno's "third circle of hell." While the owners have since made a statement attempting to clarify how the app is intended to operate, the original version created a horrifying prospect.

The Washington Post described the app as "basically Yelp, but for humans" and indicated that a user would be able to write reviews and assign ratings to any other person in the world. In the original vision of the app, you would be unable to opt out once a user put your name in the Peeple system and you would be unable to delete bad or biased reviews. If this sounds like litigation just waiting to happen, it's because litigation was just waiting to happen. Fortunately for Peeple, it has received a valuation of $7.6 million. The owners had better hope the initiative is well-funded, too, because if the app launches in a format that is anything like the original vision, they can expect a landslide of subpoenas and lawsuits.

While the owners appear to have backtracked on certain aspects of rules governing the use of Peeple, many problems were readily apparent:

  • You had to be 21 years old to use the app. (Age requirements on websites are notoriously simple to circumvent).
  • Your Facebook account must have been active for at least six months. (It remains to be seen whether the code utilized by Peeple can test this and it ignores the fact that many users could try to hide behind fake Facebook accounts when posting content.)
  • You had to input the cell number of the person you were reviewing (creating data privacy and retention issues).
  • Negative ratings for people would not be displayed unless those people had registered for the site (but individuals could not read positive reviews on the site unless they themselves were registered, creating a type of forced registration system).
  • You had 48 hours to dispute a negative rating if you were registered (but you were – unbelievably – supposed to contact the reviewer and somehow convince the poster that the review should actually be positive).
  • The app would ban profanity, sexism and discussion of private health issues (yet it appears that the Peeple administration was intended to stand as judge, jury and executioner of such content).
  • Critically, you could not remove your profile.

The problems with this model were extensive: privacy rights, data collection, impersonation, harassment, stalking, First Amendment issues, defamation, bullying, misappropriation, collection of information related to children. The list goes on. While the app was pitched as a Utopia-like place to share positivity, the reality is that it likely would breed negativity, cultivate revenge, and ultimately spiral deeper and deeper into a toxic pool of hate and mistrust. The owners seem to be overlooking the ease of registering multiple fake Facebook accounts and using Internet-sourced anonymized phone numbers that trolls can hide behind to post whatever reviews they like.

All of this at the very least amounted to a threat to those who value their privacy, let alone their reputations. In a move just dripping with irony and a hilariously misguided attempt to stem the negative feedback they were receiving last week, the owners of Peeple tried to deactivate the comments section of their own Facebook page. This probably did not bode well for Peeple's founders' ratings on their own site, had it gone live in that rather unwise format.

Yesterday, in response to almost universal negativity surrounding the app, one of Peeple's CEOs, Ms. Julia Cordray, released a statement explaining that Peeple is "a positive only app." In what seems to be a complete 180-degree shift, she stated:

"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 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."

At the time of this writing, there is no way to verify exactly how the terms of use have been changed on Peeple, because the website now contains no content. However, taking Ms. Cordray's comments at face value, it would appear that the real people have won, and privacy clearly matters to the masses.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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