Q: What, exactly, are you defining as a “hater”?
Steven Wyer: Generally speaking in this context, we are referencing businesses that attempt to penalize customers that identify themselves and leave an online review that presents the business in a less than favorable light.
Q: Who would have the authority to take action against a business for doing this?
Steven Wyer: Historically, there has not been a formal, structured way to address this issue. Civil courts have been the main conduits to resolution, but that may be changing.
Q: And now things are changing?
Steven Wyer: Perhaps. A bipartisan group of legislators in the House of Representatives has introduced the Consumer Review Freedom Act, a bill that would make it illegal for a business to penalize customers for posting critical comments on online review websites. If this were to pass, it would give authority to the U.S. Department of Justice as well as states attorneys the ability to take action against a business.
Q: Do negative reviews really impact a business?
Steven Wyer: Business owners have long claimed that negative reviews materially damage business. Since online reviews are basically a customer’s opinion of the experience or services they received, these reviews have been seen as a “freedom of speech” issue.
Q: So this is a significant enough issue to get the federal government involved??
Steven Wyer: Yes. Basically the Internet has become the primary economic engine that drives all types of commerce. When a business threatens punitive action against a customer when the offer their opinion on an online review site, a line is being crossed.
Q: How are businesses attempting to stifle free speech?
Steven Wyer: Some businesses have gotten very aggressive with customers. Instances have been documented where a business requires a customer to actually agree to a non-disparagement clause as a condition for doing business with the company. A recent court case even documented a business that went so far at to report a fake debt to a credit-reporting bureau. In that case, the court awarded the customer more than $300,000 as a default judgment.
Q: Do any states have such laws already?
Steven Wyer: Twenty-eight states already have laws on the books prohibiting these so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).