ACCC releases guidelines for online reviews, but knows it’s “difficult to police”

Regulators think it’s “extraordinarily difficult” to police, but ‘astroturfing’, the practice of giving an enterprise good reviews online while sledging the competition, is in the gun.

Sparked by continuous complaints from the public and business community, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission yesterday released guidelines on how businesses should manage online reviews, giving three commandments:

 

  • Be transparent about commercial relationships

  • Do not post misleading reviews

  • The omission or editing of reviews may be misleading

But given the global nature of the internet, the task of moderating truth in these reviews could prove tricky.

Freelance jobs website Odesk was advertising this morning for a native English speaker to “write and post their own brand-new review” for an unmentioned website for $2-3 each,  the reviews will be vetted by the employer and each review “should be two to five sentences”.

There’s nothing in the ad to suggest the reviews should be favourable to one organisation or harm another, but the practice violates consumer laws in some countries like Australia which means the advertiser is likely to be nondescript. It’s unlikely for $3 it will be a full account of the customer experience.

The scale of the issue is huge; the ACCC reported that up to one-in-five reviews “might not be a true representation of a consumer’s actual experience with a product or service”.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to police,” ACCC deputy chair Dr Michael Schaper told SmartCompany.

“Ultimately we rely on consumers or affected businesses coming to us and raising it with us, sometimes we get whistle-blowers within businesses who’s consciences says: ‘I’m not comfortable with this and management is not doing anything about it’.”

Schaper has appealed to those breaking the guidelines to shape up their practices.

“If you are using paid-for reviews or fake reviews … you need to absolutely make that clear. If you have a commercial relationship with the platform provider, that needs to be made transparent as well,” he says.

Regulators have punished businesses in the past for astroturfing, the ACCC handed out a $6600 fine to removalists Citymove for posting testimonials about itself purporting to be genuine consumers in 2011, the guidelines document stated.

In the US,Time magazine reports that negative reviews are protected as free speech. A reviewer in the US state of Virginia was sued for defamation, it was reported in January this year, for publishing a review on popular site Yelp, advising others not to “put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor”. The reviewer, Jane Perez, was ordered to rewrite the reviews but that decision was later reversed, as a Supreme Court judge ruled reviews should not be censored.

An Accor Hotels communications manager was sacked in May for posting more than 100 reviews to TripAdvisor, which praised his own organisation’s hotels while panning the competition, and not disclosing his relationship with Accor.

And last month CHOICE revealed the results of a survey of 381 hoteliers, which showed half of those surveyed considered TripAdvisor inaccurate and more than half said they had customers threaten them with negative reviews. Tourism and Transport Forum spokesman Rowan Baker said reviews were difficult to have taken down.

 

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