Update: Both parties settled the case in mediation today.
As consumer review sites continue to gain popularity, they appear destined to play an important role in the public perception of any businesses’ online reputation.
That is, unless the consumers screw it up for themselves.
You see, over the past few months I’ve noticed a growing trend of consumers making vague, petty, or downright defamatory complaints. Apparently, I’m not seeing things as CNET reports that a Yelp user is being sued by a chiropractor who claims his review is defamatory.
The lawsuit, filed February 25, 2008, alleges that Biegel [the chiropractor] has suffered loss of reputation and business as a result of the review and seeks punitive damages. According to the lawsuit, the review allegedly contained false statements and inaccuracies that suggested Biegel was dishonest and accused him of fraudulent billing practices.
The attorney for the reviewer, Christopher Norberg, claims his client’s review is “constitutionally protected speech” while Eric Nordskog, the attorney for chiropractor Steven Biegel, sees things very differently:
“Dr. Biegel has no problem with people expressing their views and opinions about his service,” Nordskog said. “But there is a line where if someone, even on Yelp or on the Internet, publishes a false statement of fact as opposed to an opinion, then that person can and should be held responsible for their words.”
The outcome of this lawsuit–which could come as early as this week–could change the entire future of consumer review sites. But, even if the chiropractor is not successful in proving defamation, it may not be long before consumer review sites hit a bumpy road.
What Could Kill Review Sites?
As consumers, our new-found channels for expressing our opinions–about our encounters with a business–are a great privilege. Unfortunately, there are two things that could bring consumer complaint/review sites crashing to their knees:
- Anonymous reviews – there are very few sites that ensure the reviewer is accountable for his or her words. How is it fair for a competitor, disgruntled employee, or ex-spouse to pose as an unhappy customer but remain veiled by anonymity?
- Defamatory reviews – writing that your dinner was cold and the waiter appeared to be in a bad mood, is one thing. But, when you make statements of fact, when indeed they are fiction or opinion, you run the risk of being sued.
The biggest problem is how do we educate millions of consumers on the “rules” of posting a review? We can’t! We have to find a better way of allowing consumers to share their opinions, while at the same time protecting businesses from defamatory attacks.
Anyone have a suggestion of how we can fix this? Or do you believe it’s not broken?