Have you ever bought a product online with great reviews, only to find it doesn’t match the hype? Ever wondered how someone can be so enthusiastic about a piece of cabling or a kitchen utensil? You might be interested to know then that Amazon has issued proceedings in a Seattle court against 1,114 people it claims have sold reviews to marketplace sellers (third parties using Amazon as a host service to sell their products). The nub; these ‘reviewers’ haven’t actually purchased or in many cases even tried the products they are rating before taking to the web and leaving feedback.
Top rated reviews are being published by individuals who advertise their services on sites such as ‘Fiverr’ (an online marketplace where people can charge small amounts for completing certain tasks). Amazon claims that: “While small in number, these reviews can significantly undermine the trust that consumers and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers place in Amazon, which in turn tarnishes Amazon’s brand.” Fiverr has not been included in proceedings as the company’s terms and conditions state advertising for services such as writing false reviews is not permitted. Fiverr has said that it will work with Amazon to resolve the issue having already taken down listings from its site for similar activity in the past.
Many of the reviewers have taken avoiding action (such as using multiple online accounts or IP addresses) in an attempt to keep their identities hidden. The 1,114 people currently listed in proceedings are therefore referred to only by their online usernames or as ‘John Does’. Reporters posing as Amazon marketplace sellers were asked by reviewers to provide feedback of their own products. The reviewer then offered to post this on the seller’s behalf making it look like a genuine, highly rated review of the product was being made.
The issue originally came to light in April when Amazon attempted to sue four firms employing people to review Amazon products on behalf of sellers. The basis of that action was ‘cybersquatting’ (using a name confusingly similar to a trade mark in a domain name in circumstances of bad faith) and trademark infringement, accusing the websites of using Amazon’s name and logo without authorisation. Litigation is ongoing although two of the companies in question have since taken their websites offline.
Here in the UK, The Government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) carried out a report in June of this year after a number of concerns were raised in relation to customers being mislead by ‘distorting reviews’. Their report surmised that: “Consumers that use online reviews find them valuable. We estimate that more than half of UK adults use them. Across the six broad sectors that we looked at, we estimate that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews”.
In our analysis there are two important objectives at play here. The first is protecting consumers who actively seek out and rely upon online reviews of products that they buy. The second is protecting online platform sellers whose reputation (and indeed profits) have the potential to be undermined by unreliable, ‘fake’ reviews. It will be interesting therefore to see how US courts deal with these cases and whether it will path the way to similar litigation in Europe.