There’s been a decent number of lawsuits and complaints arising from online reviews in the last few years. Here’s a piece I wrote recently about a lawsuit in Oregon that resulted from a scathing online review about a wedding reception. And here’s a post about the large number of complaints the FTC’s received about the online review site Yelp. According to that post, Yelp’s stock price fell 6.6% in light of reports that the Commission over 2000 complaints in the last five years.
More recently, the owner of an Oregon hotel brought a suit seeking the identity of an anonymous poster who wrote a vicious review about the hotel on TripAdvisor.com. The hotel owner is upset over the content of the review, but maybe more upset over its suspicions that the review is bogus. It contends that the poster never actually stayed at the hotel.
And this raises the larger issue about who the ultimate victim is in a case like this. I think it may be the online review site. The site itself is, in almost all cases, protected from liability by the Communications Decency Act. That federal law says that the interactive service provider – i.e. Yelp or TripAdvisor – cannot be deemed the “publisher” of third party content. That’s why the Oregon hotel is going after the anonymous poster, rather than TripAdvisor.
But if victims of negative online reviews continue to sue, and especially of they are able to shoe that the reviews are bogus, what does that do to the reliability of sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor? Their business model is based on the notion that the unfiltered reviews are the most authentic comments out there. But if they’re not authentic, or more accurately, if we don’t know whether or not they’re authentic, where’s the value proposition? And how do you solve the problem? Does the site have the resources to screen and vett every review? And even if it did, how would that affect timeliness?
I wonder if at some point the online services will start filing lawsuits against bogus reviewers on a theory that the bogus reviews interfere with the online services’ business relationships with its users. Edmunds.com sued a company called Humankind Design Ltd. in a Texas state court last year, and ultimately settled. That lawsuit alleged fraud and breach of the Edmunds.com membership agreement. I suspect we will see more of this in the future.
All of this may be good news for the more traditional media. The pitch? “We vett, we screen – you can trust us!”