Removing a Bad Online Review Can Land You in Hot Water
Online reviews are ubiquitous. People comment on a variety of websites- Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor, the list goes on- about a variety of issues. As is the case with word-of-mouth references, bad experiences are shared far more frequently than positive ones. What can a business owner do to combat a bad online review?
The Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 spells out what a company can do to protect itself from inappropriate comments online. It's okay to remove a review that contains confidential or private information, like a personnel file or a company's trade secrets. It is also okay to remove a comment that is libelous, harassing, abusive, obscene, vulgar, sexually explicit or is inappropriate with respect to race, gender, etc. Finally, a company can prohibit or remove a review that is unrelated to the company's products or services.
A business cannot include a contract provision that prevents customers from writing a negative review. The Act makes it illegal for a company to use a contract provision that:
- Bars or restricts the ability of a person who is a party to that contract to review a company's products, services, or conduct;
- Imposes a penalty or fee against someone who gives a review; or
- Requires people to give up their intellectual property rights in the content of their reviews.
The Act is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and the Texas Office of the Attorney General. A violation of the CRFA will be treated the same as a violation of the Uniform Unfair or Deceptive Act or Practices Act. A company could face financial penalties.
The FTC advises companies to review their contracts, including online terms and conditions. Also, remove any provision that restricts people from sharing their honest reviews, penalizes those who do, or claims copyright over peoples' reviews. The suggestion holds even if you've never tried to enforce it or have no intention of enforcing it.
Online reviews are here to stay. The answer to the question “what can a business owner do” is pretty clear: Closely monitor your online presence, both on review sites and social media. When the inevitable “bad” review is posted, do not delete it unless you are certain that removing the review is lawful. When in doubt, consult an attorney.