Amazon.com book reviews receive zero out of 5 stars
Online reviews have recently received a pretty bad rap.
Three developments in the last week –
• An Adelaide law student who left a highly critical review on TripAdvisor and on a restaurant’s FaceBook page has been threatened with defamation proceedings by the pizza restaurant owner; and worse still, the restaurant co-owner threatened to tell the Law Society of South Australia, because the law student’s ‘poor character did not align with the values of a prospective legal practitioner’: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3277626/Pizza-shop-threatens-SUE-customers-left-negative-review-claimed-waited-hour-food-warned-people-stay-away-place.html
• Apartment developer Meriton is alleged to have coached staff on how to prevent customers from leaving negative reviews on TripAdvisor, and even to have offered guests discounted stays in return for removal of an adverse TripAdvisor review: http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-21/meriton-apartments-allegedly-cheating-tripadvisor-system/6870256#email
• And across the Pacific, Amazon has realised that perhaps not all of the glowing book and product reviews on its website are quite legitimate. It has now sued 1,000+ people who it claims received ‘cash for comment’ (in some cases for a few dollars per review). The lawsuit asserts that Amazon’s brand reputation was being tarnished by ‘false, misleading and inauthentic’ reviews: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/oct/18/amazon-sues-1000-fake-reviewers
How might these cases play out in Australia?
Well, the law of defamation still applies online as much as in the real world, but a stumbling block is that a business cannot sue for defamatory comments (or ‘imputations’) if it has 10 or more employees. But if the individual behind the business is sufficiently identifiable or is implicated, they may be able to bring defamation proceedings in their own right.
And an importance defence is if the imputations are substantially true, ie. true in substance or not materially different from the truth. And even in Australia an opinion based comment may be protected under defamation law if it is honest and based on stated facts. So it may be OK to give a rating of zero stars out of 5 because the hotel’s towels weren’t ‘fluffy enough’.
In Amazon’s case, more likely is action based on ‘misleading or deceptive’ conduct, under section 18 of the Australian Consumer Law. But for there to be liability the person being sued must have acted in trade or commerce.
Even if this does not catch the individual reviewer (though if money or goods change hands, it may do so), it will generally catch a commercial website (such as TripAdvisor or Amazon) which allows a posted review to stay up on the site. In Australia, a website’s inaction in failing to take down misleading or deceptive posts is itself conduct which may be false or misleading, or it may also be deemed to be aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring such conduct.
Social media based or online reviews have become a crucial part of the power which consumers now wield over suppliers and service providers. The lesson for reviewers and website operators is that with great power comes great responsibility – and perhaps considerable potential legal liability.
And for some light hearted relief check out these ‘Veet for men’ reviews from Amazon (rude language alert); http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/B000KKNQBK/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_summary?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=byRankDescending