For years, the Federal Trade Commission has taken action against companies that post fake reviews, as well as companies that try to stop consumers from writing bad reviews.
This week, the agency took a new step in its campaign against inauthentic reviews: It suggested that retailers might dupe consumers by removing negative posts.
The FTC's position came to light in a letter it sent to Yotpo, which offers a platform that enables online retailers to manage reviews by customers.
The agency said it had investigated whether Yotpo's platform -- which includes a star-rating and sentiment filters -- gave retailers “the means and instrumentalities to easily and deceptively suppress negative product reviews on their websites and mislead consumers that the reviews displayed accurately reflected the views of all purchasers who submitted reviews.”
The FTC closed its investigation without bringing an enforcement action against Yotpo, but noted that the company promised to “implement measures to protect against the misuse of its review management services to suppress or delay the posting of negative product reviews.”
Among those measures, Yotpo will provide “clear and prominent guidance to its clients on their need to promptly post reviews, including negative reviews,” the letter states.
The letter, signed by Serena Viswanathan, acting associate director of the Division of Advertising Practices, was posted this week on the FTC's website.
With the letter to Yotpo, the FTC is taking “another step deeper into the consumer review ecosystem,” Jeff Greenbaum, an advertising lawyer with Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, says.
Greenbaum adds that the FTC is suggesting -- apparently for the first time -- that it could hold technology providers responsible for products that allow retailers to give a false impression of consumers' opinions.
“The FTC is continuing to expand the universe of who is responsible for things that go wrong with the consumer review ecosystem,” Greenbaum says.
Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, an expert in online advertising law, adds that the letter marks a continuation of the agency's longstanding initiatives against online fakery.
“The FTC's been on a long-term crusade to try to ensure that online content is authentic -- and that includes that consumer review databases are authentic,” he says.
While the FTC clearly doesn't want companies removing reviews simply because they're bad, the agency says in a footnote that there are times when it would be appropriate to take down posts.
“FTC staff does not believe that sellers are required to display customer reviews that contain unlawful, harassing, abusive, obscene, vulgar, or sexually explicit content or content that is inappropriate with respect to race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity, so long as the criteria for withholding reviews is applied uniformly to all reviews submitted,” the footnote states.
The agency also says companies need not post reviews unrelated to products or services -- which it defines broadly as including customer service, delivery, returns and exchanges. The agency adds that companies should not “withhold” reviews relating to those services.