Topix fee to review flagged posts draws fire from 21 states

Topix fee to review flagged posts draws fire from 21 statesA $19.99 fee to expedite the review of inappropriate posts on Internet message board host has drawn fire from nearly two dozen attorneys general over concerns the site is essentially charging people to remove negative posts.

But Topix's CEO Chris Tolles told Consumer Ally removing the fee actually takes a choice away from consumers -- to pay to get priority service. The company, which hasn't been accused of breaking any laws, has been working with the states since February and will continue to "work in good faith" on the states' concerns, he says.

The states' letter alleges that an initial investigation by Connecticut and Kentucky found the "Forums and Polls" section has inappropriate comments and the forums appear to be un-moderated. The letter asked Topix to drop the fee, make its feedback and flagging options clearer, reduce the time for reviewing posts and improve post screening.

"Targets of false, abusive, or obscene posts are being victimized a second time by being charged a removal fee for having the site take those posts down," Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement. "I find it deplorable that a website would deliberately create an environment where these types of comments -- many of them directed at children – are permitted and then allowed to remain on the website."

Tolles says the company has a system of automated moderation in place for the 4 million comments posted in a month -- with 10% of those comments being weeded out before they are posted. Another 45,000 comments are reviewed for content by Topix staff. Less than 1% of all reviews of comments are the priority reviews, which Tolles said is way to get to the front of the line. The priority reviews take one day instead of seven.

"When I go to Disneyland, I want to buy my way to the front of the line," Tolles says. "The attorney generals here are arguing against consumer choice."

As for inappropriate comments that are posted, Tolles says that is a First Amendment issue. In its terms of service, Topix says it "does not monitor or control the information posted by others" and warns users they may see objectionable content.

Topix, a private California company, automatically lists stories from thousands of sources and allows "User Editors" to comment and post items. Those users agree to not submit illegal, obscene and other types of posts that could be objectionable.

The states who joined in the letter include Ariz., Ark.,, Conn.,, Ill., Iowa, Kan., KY., Maine, MD., and, Miss., Mon., Neb., N. H., N. M., N. D., Oh., R.I., S. D., Tenn., Va., and Wash. The territories of Guam and Northern Mariana Islands also signed on to the letter.
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