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MAY 14, 2010

AGs Urge Topix to Eliminate $19.99 Fee For "Expedited Review" of Abusive Posts

Joined by 22 other state attorneys general, today Attorney General Dustin McDaniel urged Internet message board host Topix.com to improve consumer protections and eliminate its $19.99 fee for "priority review" of abusive or inappropriate posts.

In a letter to Topix CEO Chris Tolles, the attorneys general expressed their "significant concerns" with the "Forums and Polls" pages and the website's $19.99 fee to expedite review of inappropriate posts. The fee, combined with the design of the feedback system and lack of adequate disclosure about the system, pose serious consumer protection concerns, according to the attorneys general.

An initial investigation by Kentucky and Connecticut found that the "Forums and Polls" section of Topix is routinely used to post abusive or vulgar information, often about children, in blatant violation of Topix's terms of service. The forums also appear to operate without moderators.

"False or obscene comments can affect individual families and businesses by damaging reputations," McDaniel said. "Arkansas is a small town state, and the vices of the Topix site can be particularly harmful in a small town setting."

What the letter asks Topix to do:

Eliminate the $19.99 fee for "expedited review"
Charging consumers $19.99 for an "expedited review" of abusive posts that violate the Topix Terms of Service (TOS) is unconscionable. Topix should immediately refrain from charging consumers to conduct expedited reviews and develop alternative measures to screen out abusive posts and provide timely review and removal of posts that violate your TOS including hiring additional personnel, if necessary, to timely review abuse reports.
Improve disclosures regarding the feedback system
Removal of the $19.99 "expedited review" option from the "flag abuse" drop down link is necessary, but there need to be additional disclosures clarifying Topix's "feedback" and "flagging" options so that consumers understand the process Topix employs for reviewing flagged posts and reports of abuse.
Reduce time for reviewing abuse reports
A 7-14 day turnaround time for reviewing abuse reports is not satisfactory. We encourage Topix to improve its system to reduce the amount of time needed to review these posts that is in line with standards developed by MySpace and Facebook. 72 hours for routine abuse reports and 24 hours for emergency reports.
Improve screening of abusive posts
Screening measures should be enhanced to improve the effectiveness of any artificial intelligence (AI) systems in place. The current ones are not effective. Abusive posts continue to dominate many of the forums. Topix should immediately revamp its AI technology to block more violative posts and repeat offenders, and explore additional technological measures that will block abusive and hateful posts before they are posted.

The attorneys general from the following states and jurisdictions have signed the Topix letter: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Guam, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington.

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