Commentary

Online Furniture Store Tries To Squelch Negative Reviews

Of all the various ill-advised attempts to control online word-of-mouth, the efforts of Web furniture retailer Full House Appliances rank among the worst.

For the last six months, the company has required Web purchasers to agree to limit any online negative reviews in advance. Full House Appliances' terms and conditions, which users must consent to at check-out, include the following passage: "I agree that If I intend to provide negative feedback, the only legitimate one is based solely on verifiable and documented facts."

The terms go on to purportedly ban consumers from writing "subjective" reviews that express matters like their "personal opinions, perceptions, emotions, interpretations, feelings." For good measure, Full House Appliances additionally threatens users with "criminal libel" should they defame the company.

These threats will probably ring hollow to lawyers, given that many states no longer allow criminal prosecutions for libel; additionally, people can't be sued for libel for expressing an opinion. Likewise it's difficult to envision any judge in the country sustaining a breach of contract claim against a consumer who posts a bad review.

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Nonetheless, attempts to scare users into withdrawing negative comments often work even when users have the law on their side, says Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who previously served as general counsel of review site Epinions.com. "The harm is done before you even get to court," he tells MediaPost. "Nine out of 10 people who get a nastygram are going to instantly fold."

Indeed, The New York Times, which called attention to Full House Appliance's practice, reports that Full House sent an email to a customer threatening to sue because he posted a bad review to ResellerRatings. The customer took down the review and Full House gave the customer a refund.

The newspaper attributes Full House's attempts to squelch online criticism to the "profound vulnerability that retailers now feel with the proliferation of consumer ratings sites." But surely, if anything could harm a company's reputation more than a bad review by customers, it would be suing those customers for expressing their opinions. Perhaps instead of sending the general counsel's office after disgruntled customers, the company could offer to remedy whatever complaint led to the bad review. Failing that, there's nothing to stop retailers from telling their own side of the story, either on review sites or on their own proprietary sites.

Remarkably, Full House Appliances isn't the only one attempting to use the law to intimidate users into refraining from posting reviews. In 2008, a doctor and law school graduate created the company Medical Justice in order to prevent patients from bad-mouthing doctors online.

Medical Justice creates contracts called "Mutual Agreement to Maintain Privacy" -- in which doctors promise to prevent patients from "unwanted marketing information" -- anonymous targeting by marketers -- in exchange for patients' promise to avoid posting negative reviews to Web sites. The contracts also assign the copyright in anything the patients write about their doctors to those doctors.

If patients sign these contracts and then post unflattering reviews, the company can threaten the host site with a copyright infringement lawsuit. Because review sites are immune from liability for libel by users, but not for copyright infringement, the sites have an incentive to remove the posts.

Additionally, Network Associates (now McAfee) also used to include language in its terms and conditions purporting to require that consumers obtain permission to publish reviews. That company's effort to constrain consumers' speech was shot down by New York courts years ago, thanks to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. He sued the company and obtained an injunction requiring it to remove that language from its terms.

5 comments about "Online Furniture Store Tries To Squelch Negative Reviews ".
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  1. Kent Emeson from Adometry, February 14, 2011 at 5:34 p.m.

    This is not right and definitely not American...the right to free speech allows us to speak, write and state our opinions. If companies think they can scare us into not writing poor reviews, express concern over rude, poor and disrespectful customer service engagements they better think twice. Seriously if a company threatened me, I would make sure the entire world knew about these deceptive practices and to not BUY anything from a company that would publicly state I can't write a bad review or express my opinion.

  2. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, February 14, 2011 at 6:20 p.m.

    Anyone who has been online for more than five minutes of their lives understands that comments and reviews, positive or negative, should never be taken seriously unless there is other supporting evidence.

    Instead of wasting time and money on very questionable legal attacks on their critics, Full House Appliances could easily, and more cheaply, post comments defending their side of the issue, and let the readers decide who is at fault.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 14, 2011 at 7:24 p.m.

    The god complex runs deep in every business. Some believe in themselves more than others. Remember all of you out there who think there is such a thing as self regulation, following morals they try to impose on others, elevate their self made laws upon the rest of the population, think that the ivory towers care a lick about you in any way beyond their own greed and power.....government intervention, when that too is regulated, prevents Full House (with not many home) to sue according to their gods. You know, too, that whatever they sell can be purchased elsewhere...people who sign things they don't read like mortgages.

  4. Shane Stadler, February 15, 2011 at 9:46 a.m.

    Medical Justice offers doctors protection from out-and-out internet defamation, not from patients’ rights to freedom of speech. The agreements do NOT prevent patients from posting to the Internet; in fact, it specifically encourages valid feedback on reputable sites. Many rating sites have significant flaws – no mechanism to verify the poster is an actual patient, statistically insignificant sample size, lack of moderation on technical issues, etc. However, the major issue with anonymously rating physicians is that physicians are foreclosed from responding to those post because of HIPAA, state and federal privacy laws, and the immunity granted to ISP providers. Medical Justice’s services are in place to help defend doctors from fictional or fraudulent posts ONLY . . . to give physicians a remedy for egregious material where they have no other right of rebuttal. The forms mentioned in this article are in place to get feedback from patients – if the doctor does something positive, tell them, if the doctor does something negative, tell them.

  5. Jay S from The Whole Truth, February 25, 2011 at 2:27 p.m.

    Wait a minute! Is this about libel or review? The NYT article does NOT seem to have adequately made that distinction. One has to dig a little deeper to realize it is about libel. Libel is to "bad mouth" someone in the public. Why would the retailer have gone after that customer if he had written a solid review based on facts? This would make little sense. In the 'About Us" section of the retailer site, particularly on this page: http://www.fullhouseappliances.co/fuhoapwatose.html

    This issue gets clarified. After all, it is about libel. If it is true, then the retailer has the right to protect its reputation, just like any individual. On the other hand, a customer has to realize that review sites are PUBLIC domains, where he exercises his rights, but not violates the rights of others. The terms and conditions of the rating site also makes that clear. I wonder how many reviewers really spent time reading them before writing their reviews. it is a well-recognized fact that people tend to speak out MORE about their bad experiences than the good ones, because if everything goes well, they are like" Yeah, that is what I pay for…" I agree with the article that this indeed puts retailers in a vulnerable position. The current review sites need a complete overhaul. Before then, I will stick with consumer watchdogs like BBB.

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