It's no secret that online review sites might have given people far more power over businesses than in the past. But it's also no secret that such sites have spurred some questionable tactics by business owners.
Numerous companies have claimed in lawsuits that they were defamed by bad reviews online. Business owners have also resorted to posting reviews themselves, or hiring others to do so -- despite the fallout that could occur if they're caught.
But now, in one of the more unusual disputes surrounding online reviews, a business is claiming it was libeled by the accusation that it might have posted shill reviews.
In a complaint filed this month in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Texas-based roofing contractor Austin Gutter King alleges that a Web user who went by the name "Norma Lee" defamed the company by saying its positive reviews on Google Places might not be legitimate.
"We are a small firm that conducts research into fraudulent customer reviews posted by shady businesses," Norma Lee allegedly wrote in a November 2011 Google Places post. "Whereas it seems that Austin Gutter King is not necessarily a 'shady business' it does appear that they find it necessary to post fake customer reviews... It is highly unlikely that many of the customer service reviews you find posted about this merchant are legitimate." (The post itself appeared to have been removed from Google Places as of Thursday afternoon.)
Austin Gutter King, which says the comments are false and damaging, filed suit against both the anonymous commenter and also Google.
Austin Gutter King says in the complaint that it's only seeking an order requiring Google to turn over information to unmask Norma Lee -- as opposed to a ruling that Google defamed the company.
But Google nonetheless has grounds to argue that the case against it should be dismissed because the federal Communications Decency Act provides that Web companies aren't responsible for users' posts, says Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the watchdog group Public Citizen.
If Google is dropped from the case, then the matter likely wouldn't belong in federal court at all, because federal courts typically lack jurisdiction over libel -- unless the parties reside in separate states, Levy says. In this case, Austin Gutter King can't argue that Norma Lee is a resident of another state because the company doesn't know Norma Lee's identity.
At this point, no one other than Austin Gutter King has filed court papers, so it's not clear what arguments will be raised, or how the dispute might play out. But in other lawsuits, judges have said that users should be notified before they're unmasked, so that they can argue (through a lawyer) against any orders that would result in their identities becoming known.