Defamation on review Websites – An Overview
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Review websites are either Industry Specific or Multi Area. They create an image of a service for the public good whilst in fact, they are commercial enterprises, they are not altruistic. Their commodity is YOUR reputation, and it's free of charge. Review websites often claim to have a right to publish without responsibility for content. This claim is false; in many cases operators of review websites are also the publishers and often the editors of the posts and are therefore liable to you for defamation.
Review websites are either industry specific or are categorised into various sectors. Special care and attention should be given to the former as conflict of interest issues can arise, most notably if the website owner also operates commercially within that sector. These websites are purely commercial enterprises. Despite all their altruistic froth about being there to help protect the little swimmer from the circling sharks, they are not, this is just marketing propaganda. Remember, these sites are there to make money, their commodity is your reputation and it’s free of charge.
Anonymity of Online Reviews
Not all review websites require a reviewer to register with them by providing an email address and a username. Even those that do will rarely seek to verify that email address; and, of course, we all know that an email address can be obtained without any identification. This therefore renders many review site users, for all intents and purposes, anonymous and quite possibly untraceable. With the above in mind, if you wanted to build a system that prevented review fraud or other abuse, this would be among the worst foundations to build it upon.
Authenticity of Online Reviews
With very few exceptions, review sites make little or no effort to verify whether a review is genuine. A few review sites provide information ‘fields’ for the reviewer to place a unique identifier such as a job number or an invoice number, however, these ‘fields’ are hardly ever mandatory. We accept that this would be impractical for transactions in places such as restaurants (currently leading the charge in review fraud!), but the same cannot be said for most market sectors. This clearly demonstrates the cavalier approach adopted by these websites to your reputation. It would not take very much effort on their part to push this to the front and centre when reviews are being created and encourage users to complete these sections fully. This would give a properly completed review much more credibility and at the same time cast justifiable doubt on those who insist upon remaining in the shadows.
Legality of Online Reviews
In many cases reviewers must agree to a set of terms and conditions which usually include agreeing, amongst other things, not to write anything defamatory. Unfortunately, it is clear that the vast majority of reviewers have no idea what constitutes defamation (calling people a "bunch of crooks" is surprisingly common!) The site operators often attempt to disclaim liability by virtue of the reviewer’s declaration. They may believe this protects them; however they are wrong. The review site is, in fact, publishing all that the reviewers write and are liable in law for any defamation contained therein. It must be said that the majority of reviews are honest. However, a growing number are malicious and bear little or no relation to a fair, balanced and honest appraisal of their experience with the company they are writing about. As a result, we are seeing sharp increases in incidents of organisations being seriously defamed.
Going forward, more and more people will become aware of their existence, effectiveness and influence in the decision making process by potential customers. Review sites will not only be seen for what they ostensibly are, a reactive post dealings report, but also for what they could become if used pro-actively, as a pre-dealings influencer. This is a powerful commercial weapon in the business world. Review sites are currently being used by a relatively small number of consumers but the frequency of use, and abuse, is growing rapidly. It is difficult to predict how this will play out over time but proper attention should be given to this arena as things could become very unpleasant indeed for those organisations that fail to monitor their current consumer review status.