The rap on Rapleaf, the "trust meter" you can't trust

Auren Hoffman, networker extraordinaire, hardly flies under the Silicon Valley radar. But his latest venture, Rapleaf, backed by Facebook investor Peter Thiel and launched more than a year ago, has managed to do so. Until recently. So what is Rapleaf, exactly, and why are people buzzing about it now? Hard to say — no, really. Launched as a "trust meter," a way to quantify people's business ethics — like eBay's buyer and seller ratings, but independent of any one site — Rapleaf's value proposition and stated goals have taken several perplexing twists and turns. And as with Hoffman's party patter, Rapleaf's premise is initially alluring, but leaves you feeling slightly nauseated.

Rapleaf began as a competition to eBay's reputation ratings. Rather than being tied to eBay's auctions, though, Rapleaf would track an individual's reputation universally, online and offline. Reputation ratings have been a valuable resource, but proprietary to eBay. The idea of a rating which would apply both to the Web and the real world was well-received — except by eBay, which banned Rapleaf's nascent service last year.

But at its launch, its chances of success were pegged to getting other consumer websites to use its rating system, rather than just relying on user comments and ratings. A year later, it has attracted a few meaningless partners — and evolved into something less reputable than a reputation tracker. Rapleaf has devolved from the lofty category of "reputation tracker" into a "people search" site — a thoroughly sleazy category that includes sites like Spock and PeekYou.

Hoffman further muddied the waters by introducing a couple of subsidiary services to Rapleaf. UpScoop, a product that mines all of your email contacts and tells you what social networks they belong to, launched in January. Rapleaf bills UpScoop as a "fun, free service," but it primarily harvests new emails for Rapleaf to index. It certainly does little to bolster Rapleaf's goal "to make it more profitable to be ethical."

Indeed, some charge that Hoffman is making Rapleaf more profitable by being unethical. His latest service is TrustFuse, which sells Rapleaf demographic data to marketers. When CNET recently ran a story on Rapleaf and TrustFuse, Hoffman killed the TrustFuse website and altered RapLeaf's privacy policy. But TrustFuse, as a service, quietly lives on.

So Rapleaf is not really an online destination where people go to evaluate the reputations of business partners. Rather, it is a honeypot using Rapleaf and UpScoop to lure people in and harvest personal data to be sold through TrustFuse — all thanks to Hoffman's once lofty, now rapidly diminishing reputation in the Internet business.