Pointing out failings for all on Web to see

Objects of criticism have little recourse

aggrieved's venting called `therapeutic'


Terence Banich had been outed as a bad tipper, and he didn't even know it.

He popped up on the cheapskate list at BitterWaitress.com, berated by a server at a Chicago restaurant for leaving a $3 tip on a $200 bill.

Informed of his tipping infamy, Banich said if he had left such a measly gratuity, it was a mistake, a misplaced decimal point, and he's sorry for it.

But Banich, a Chicago lawyer, also said he was none too pleased that a waitress had lifted information from his credit card -- his name -- and posted it on the Internet.

Banich had effectively been cybersmeared, and he's far from alone.

As the Internet has grown, so have Web sites that allow ordinary people to post all sorts of reviews and opinions about customers, bosses, businesses and so on.

You can gripe about your boss at JobSchmob.com, complain about Wal-Mart at the Consumerist.com or rail against a contractor's shoddy work on Angie's List.

For the most part, these sites are a good thing -- more information leads to better choices -- whether picking a place to work, to shop or to eat.

But a byproduct of this sort of democracy is the cybersmear, a critique run amok. It's a nasty opinion posted on the Internet that can sully the reputation of a business or individual, sometimes through outright fibs.

And those who feel they've been defamed usually have little recourse. By law, Web sites like BitterWaitress are not treated as publishers. Instead, they are pipelines for the opinions of their readers and contributors.

Sites like BitterWaitress have been on the Internet since the beginning, but now they reach more people than ever. That's partly because the Web is becoming such a staple in people's lives: 72 percent of all U.S. adults use it, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

It's also because blogs and message boards have become so easy to create in the past few years. "It's kind of a no-brainer to get these things set up," said Laura Gurak, director of University of Minnesota's Internet Studies Center.

Derek Gordon, marketing director at the blog-tracking site Technorati, said it follows about 30 million blogs worldwide. The number of blogs tracked by Technorati has doubled in size every 5 1/2 months, Gordon said.

"Before blogs, very few people had means to express their ideas," he said. "Now, people have a distribution method."

Chris Fehlinger began distributing restaurant servers' opinions in 1999 when he started BitterWaitress. Now, type the word "waitress" into Google's search engine, and Fehlinger's site is the first you'll see.

Fehlinger, a veteran New York City waiter, started the site as a newsletter. He added celebrity gossip, tidbits about stars' tipping habits, and a section where waiters and waitresses could post their own "war stories" about managers and customers.

The anonymous war stories range from reasoned complaints to wild rants. Individual restaurants frequently aren't named, though some could be identified by details given.

Then there's BitterWaitress' database of bad tippers, which frequently drops names of the famous and the not-at-all famous.

"It started out as a sort of joke," Fehlinger said of the list, which sports a formal title that can't be printed in this newspaper.

But it has proved quite popular. There are 2,500 postings on it from across the country, and Fehlinger said he has 2,000 more bad-tip posts that he hasn't had time to put up.

Banich's name surfaced on the bad tipper list after he and a companion dined last fall at steakhouse Ruth's Chris.

The poster was anonymous but said the server called Banich "cheap" and groused that the woman with him complained about the menu's lack of vegetarian options.

In an interview, Banich recalled the meal, though he couldn't recall the amount of the tip. But he said he's generally a good tipper, and that if he wanted to make a point about bad service, he still wouldn't have left so little.

"Do you think if I had a bill of $200 that I'd [purposely] leave $3? Definitely not," Banich said.

Even his server acknowledged in the post that Banich might have just goofed. The server might have gotten Banich's name from his credit card. The server also apparently threw Banich's name into an Internet search engine: The posting noted that he was a lawyer, information Banich said he didn't give out.

Banich was troubled that his credit card was used for more than paying his bill.

"The expectation is that [payment] is the only reason they'll use that information, and that they are not going to expropriate it to air a grievance in public," he said. "It's a breach of trust."

Chris Bachman, general manager of the Ruth's Chris, said he'd never heard of BitterWaitress and that the restaurant "obviously" doesn't allow such postings like the one about Banich.

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