2

As a user, I expect user ratings and reviews (on shops like Amazon or review sites like IMDb) to provide an independent information about a product. I'm aware reviews could still be biased (e.g. people who are unhappy with a product could leave a review more often than happy customers) but generally I expect some degree of integrity, in the sense that reviews are not manipulated intentionally. But what exactly should I expect from the legal point of view?

Practically, is a company publishing user-generated reviews allowed to manipulate user ratings (e.g. by removing negative or positive reviews) if:

  • the company decides a product received an unfair rating (e.g. suspected vote rigging)
  • the company expresses their own option of a product, without financial incentive (e.g. the company owner prefers cats over dogs, so cat-themed products get better ratings)
  • the company promotes a product in exchange for a reward (e.g. the seller could pay to have negative reviews removed)

What US laws would such actions violate, if any?

1
  • 1
    Why would you "expect user ratings and reviews...to provide an independent information about a product"?
    – warren
    Jun 16 '21 at 16:04
2

"the company promotes a product in exchange for a reward (e.g. the seller could pay to have negative reviews removed)"

Endorsements are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.

But if you "expect user ratings and reviews (on shops like Amazon or review sites like IMDb) to provide an independent information about a product," you are unjustified in that belief and the company or website operator is under no obligation to do so. It is not illegal to manipulate online reviews.

6
  • 1
    Are user reviews on a product page definitely considered endorsements for advertising though? It’s not particularly helpful for laypeople like myself to link to a twelve page document without any clues as to which parts apply in this context. I’m interested in how far someone can go legally in publishing misleading information on a product page, even though I’m sure most of it isn’t illegal. Is there a difference between a product page on Amazon where something is for sale and, for example, a TV series page on IMDB that accepts user ratings?
    – ColleenV
    Jun 16 '21 at 18:57
  • The theory would be that a paid review amounts to an advertisement. "Is there a difference between a product page on Amazon where something is for sale and, for example, a TV series page on IMDB that accepts user ratings?" Not really. This area is almost completely unregulated.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 16 '21 at 20:16
  • 2
    @ColleenV: You may find the FTC's Endorsement FAQ to be more approachable. I'll note that the FAQ has a short, dedicated section on online review programs. In short, the endorsement guidelines do apply to online reviews.
    – Brian
    Jun 16 '21 at 21:36
  • 1
    @Brian That was helpful, thanks. It does seem a bit toothless though. It’s well-known that sites like IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, etc. cull negative reviews for certain high value shows/movies/video games. There’s not enough transparency in how reviews are managed for someone to raise a complaint that couldn’t be easily dismissed. What it comes down to is that people using these sites need to realize they’re the product, not the customer (according to my husband) ;)
    – ColleenV
    Jun 16 '21 at 22:15
  • 1
    So essentially, all three cases in my question are legal, on condition that in the last case the review page bears a mention "reviews sponsored by [seller name]"? Jun 18 '21 at 9:10
2

Misleading and deceptive reviews are against the law

The Australian Consumer Law makes misleading or deceptive conduct in trade or commerce illegal. This applies to online reviews like it does everywhere else.

The ACCC guidance suggests that the following cross the line:

  • leaving reviews that the business knows or believes are fake
  • offering incentives only for good reviews; offering incentives for all reviews, good and bad, is ok.
  • failing to disclose commercial relationships between the business and the reviewer
  • failing to moderate reviews in accordance with stated and disclosed procedures.

There have been prosecutions and fines for misleading reviews.

2
  • Thanks for this non-US perspective. I have a question though: would my first and second examples fulfill the ACCC requirements? I.e., is removing negative reviews which the business believes to be genuine (but perhaps unjust) OK, as long as no financial reward is involved? Is the business allowed to set arbitrary moderation rules, e.g. "1-star ratings are forbidden on products featuring cats"? Jun 18 '21 at 9:02
  • @DmitryGrigoryev courts in Australia apply the duck test - if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck, it’s probably a duck: you’re calling it a chicken? Prove it. That is, if the company takes action is “likely to mislead or deceive” then they’ve broken the law even if they call it something else.
    – Dale M
    Jun 18 '21 at 9:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.