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Constructive criticism

Consumers find new voice in taking gripes online. Wounded targets fight back, but with little success.

The Internet is changing the way consumers complain about companies, products, and services.

Instead of grumbling to a neighbor or filing a complaint with the company, a regulator, or the Better Business Bureau, more and more consumers are taking their beefs online, either contributing to gripe sites or setting up their own. There's even a website called Webgripesites.com that catalogs complaint sites and offers guidance to consumers on how to set up new ones.

Most of today's gripe sites, like SprintNextelGripes.com or Verizonpathetic.com, target big companies and serve primarily as forums for consumers to share concerns and information. But increasingly consumers are taking aim at local businesses, especially contractors and developers. These narrowly targeted websites not only criticize the company, but urge other consumers to boycott it. With negative commentary just a search engine away, many of the targeted companies say their businesses have suffered, and some are responding with lawsuits.

Eric Goldman, an assistant professor and director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University in California, said the Internet is giving consumers greater power and companies need to adjust to the new reality.

"Contractors and home builders are going to have to grow thicker skins," he said. "They cannot squash all the people who will complain about what they do."

Travis and Kim Partington of Abington are typical of the new Internet-savvy customer. The couple is locked in a dispute with Stanton & Sons Contracting of Easton over a nearly $200,000 renovation of their home.

The Partingtons have sent Stanton & Sons a demand letter under the state's Consumer Protection Act and plan to file complaints with state regulators and the Better Business Bureau. But they have also created a blog where they claim Stanton has been a "nightmare" and urge consumers not to do business with him.

"It's kind of cathartic," Partington said of his blog. "I don't have a lot of resources. What do you do for justice?"

Daniel Stanton, the business owner, said the couple is unfairly blaming him for the high cost of the renovations they ordered. He said building inspectors have approved all of his work. Stanton said Travis Partington at one of their meetings vowed "to destroy my life" and he assumes the blog is part of that effort.

"You want an interesting article?" asked Stanton, who is consulting a lawyer. "Well, how about how contractors don't have a leg to stand on. You're basically guilty until proven innocent in Massachusetts."

At PaulMcMann.com, a consumer who goes under the pseudonym of Truthteller has set up a website where consumers who feel they have been wronged by Weston developer Paul J. McMann can share their experiences. The homepage of the website features a photo of McMann and the statement: "This website is devoted to the truth, the truth about a man who has turned lives upside down."

In e-mail correspondence with the Globe, Truthteller detailed his negative experiences with McMann but insisted on anonymity. "So many people have been hurt by him. It needs to stop," he said.

McMann says the website is riddled with errors, but what's really frustrating about it is that he doesn't know who his accuser is.

"Everyone's got a right to say what they want, but it only seems fair to put your name on it," McMann said. "You should have a right to face your accuser."

McMann filed lawsuits in Massachusetts and Arizona seeking to uncover Truthteller's identity and to shut down his website, which McMann says is defamatory and damaging to his business. McMann lost both cases.

In the Massachusetts case, US District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro concluded that Truthteller's comments were opinions, not provable as true or false. But he indicated that if McMann could rebut statements on the website with factual affidavits he might consider unmasking Truthteller and allowing the defamation case to proceed.

"Speech on the Internet receives First Amendment protection. First Amendment protection includes protection of anonymous speech," Tauro said in his decision. "At the same time, there is no right to freely defame others."

McMann is now pursuing a case against Truthteller for illegal use of his name, which is trademarked.

He said he also hired a private detective to discover the identity of Truthteller.

Gregory A. Beck, a lawyer with Citizen Action in Washington who represented Truthteller in court, said the consumer group has defended a number of gripe site operators sued by their targets.

He isn't sure why the lawsuits are proliferating, but says contractors like McMann should respond to the allegations directly rather than going to court.

"Nobody's stopping him from posting his side of the story," Beck said. "Consumers reading these gripe sites understand there are two sides to every story. They're capable of understanding this is one opinion."

Stephen C. Sieber of SCS Contracting Group in Washington, D.C., said he wasn't allowed to respond when several consumers posted negative comments about his business on Angie's List, an Indianapolis-based Web company that charges customers about $60 a year to read and post opinions of service providers.

Angie Hicks, the founder of Angie's List, said she welcomes comments from contractors, but she said Sieber's responses didn't conform to the website's standards.

Sieber has sued Angie's List, several of the consumers who posted anonymous reviews on the website, and The Washington Post, which wrote about the dispute. Angie's List has filed a countersuit.

Under federal law, a gripe site that merely posts a consumer's comment about a company is not liable for what the consumer says, but the griper himself is legally responsible for the words he uses. Sieber said he believes Angie's List lost its immunity from prosecution when it issued its own consumer alert about SCS that he considers defamatory.

Both Hicks and Sieber say a lot is at stake in the legal dispute. Hicks said the case will affirm that consumers are entitled to their opinions. "As long as they're being truthful, they're entitled to their First Amendment rights," she said.

Sieber agrees, but says he's entitled to his opinion as well. He says contractors have the same rights as everyone else. "The Internet is mass communication by the individual," he said. "The concept of pleading your case on the Internet will seriously take hold."

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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