The Federal Trade Commission has tried to curb fake reviews online since at least 2009, when it issued guidance stating that people who posted endorsements should disclose any relationship with the company being reviewed.
In subsequent years, the agency followed through by bringing prosecutions, such as its 2010 case against Reverb Communications, which allegedly posted phony iTunes reviews of an app developer.
This week, the FTC once again criticized phony write-ups, stating that people should be able to trust that reviews “reflect the honest opinions of actual customers.”
But the FTC didn't just criticize writers or marketers involved in creating the reviews. In what appears to be a first, FTC cast some blame for fake reviews on the tech companies that host the write-ups.
“A quick search today on any big search engine or many social media sites shows how easy it is to buy reviews and how much more platforms could do to protect consumers and honest businesses from this deceptive practice,” Samuel Levine, head of the FTC's consumer protection bureau, writes.
“Platforms are in the best position to fix the review ecosystem -- and they have the tools to do it,” Levine adds. “Among many other things, they can hire more people, improve detection technology, share information appropriately on bad actors and fraud patterns, be more transparent with the public, and provide more access to outside researchers,” he writes.
Levine goes on to call the Communications Decency Act a “confounding factor” that “makes it very difficult for law enforcement agencies like the FTC to hold online services accountable for the proliferation of bogus reviews prepared by others on their sites.”
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides that online platforms aren't responsible for illegal posts by users (with a few exceptions, such as for posts that infringe copyright).
Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the tech-industry funded Chamber of Progress -- which has opposed efforts to weaken Section 230 -- takes issue with the idea that the law contributes to fake reviews.
“Blaming Section 230 for fake reviews ignores that Section 230 incentivizes and encourages sites to moderate content,” he tells MediaPost, referring to a section of the law that protects websites' decisions about how to treat users' posts.
“Law enforcement shouldn't use Section 230 as an excuse for not prosecuting the bad guys directly -- which will have the biggest deterrent effect,” he adds.
It's also worth noting that Section 230 doesn't just protect web companies from prosecution for fake reviews, but also protects companies from defamation lawsuits by businesses that feel aggrieved by negative write-ups. Without Section 230, it's not clear Yelp, Amazon, Google, Facebook or any other company would be willing to risk such lawsuits by hosting any reviews.