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Online reviews: Pillory or consumer protection?

Anonymous online reviews are a great help for users, but they can severely damage the reviewed party. One doctor took an evaluation site to court to get the name of a reviewer. But what about freedom of expression?

Hotels, restaurants, doctors - there's nothing you can't review on the Internet. Online evaluation sites like "Yelp" or "Trip Advisor" offer users the chance to post reviews without revealing their real names. The positive and negative evaluations are supposed to help other users decide on their next vacation spot, or find a dentist in their new hometown.

Particularly harsh reviews, however, can sometimes rub the reviewed person or business the wrong way. When the evaluation is perceived as being insulting or simply false, those criticized fight back - as recently happened in Germany. A doctor took his case all the way to the Federal Court of Justice (BGH), to make the German doctors evaluation portal "Sanego" release the name of the person who wrote an extremely negative review. So far, Sanego has refused to comply.

'Internet death' looms

A decision in the civil suit is slated for July 1. Jan Gmerek, the lawyer representing Sanego, referred to the right of freedom of expression and said to the German Press Agency (DPA) that without anonymity, fewer negative - and thus fewer honest - reviews would be posted. This would also mean that users have less reliable information to guide them in their decisions, according to Gmerek.

Matthias Siegmann, the lawyer representing the doctor, told DPA that the review contained false information and that his client should therefore receive damages for libel. "Freedom of expression doesn't protect untrue statements", Siegmann told the news agency.

Portrait Eva Dzepina. (Photo: fotoFLEXX)

Dzepina: anonymous online reviews are legal, but ethically questionable

"If a review is untrue, or insulting, and infringes on your personal rights, you have to take action against it," Eva Dzepina said. Dzepina is a lawyer who specializes in Internet law.

She told DW that anonymous evaluating is legal, but is also ethically questionable: "Is it right that the reviewed is mentioned by name, while the reviewer remains anonymous?"

After all, bad evaluations, she stressed, can have dire consequences for the reviewed person or business. There could be a loss in revenue, a marred image and, in the worst case, even "Internet death," Dzepina said.

The end of a bed-and-breakfast

Other countries have also seen their share of lawsuits because of allegedly false online reviews. In the Scottish county of Inverness, the small bed-and-breakfast of Martin and Jacqui Clark suffered death by Internet. The couple took their case to the Court of Sessions in Edinburgh to get evaluation portal "Trip Advisor" to release the names of two reviewers. These persons' reviews were "false, malicious and resulted in a loss of business," the Clarks told British hotelier website "Caterer and Hotelkeeper."

But the Scottish judge did not order "Travel Advisor" to release the names. Instead, he said the case didn't fall into his jurisdiction, since the evaluation portal has its registered office in Massachussetts. The Clarks, he ruled, would have to sue in the US. Since the couple had neither the financial means, nor the energy to do this, they declined. Their impotence against negative reviews they said were false was one reason why the Clarks to put their bed-and-breakfast up for sale in February 2014.

View of the Bundesgerichtshof. (Photo: Uli Deck/dpa)

The German Federal Court of Justice is just one stop in the global struggle over anonymous online reviews

In a January 2014 case in the US state of Virginia, the judge ruled in favor of the reviewed business. A carpet cleaning business had demanded the evaluation site "Yelp" release the names of seven reviewers. The business owner claimed these seven had left bad reviews without ever being customers of the cleaning service. The judge ruled "Yelp" had to release the names because the reviewers had left their evaluations under false pretenses.

Opponents of the ruling said that the business owner did not sufficiently justify the need for the reviewers' identities. Paul Levy, one of the review site's lawyers, told the Washington Times newspaper that the judge's decision was "going to make it more difficult for the marketplace of ideas to get valuable information about companies."

Providing impartial criteria

Less information for users could be a problem, since online review sites play a big role in decision making for many people, according to Michaela Zinke from Germany's Consumer Advice Office. "Doctor evaluation portals, in particular, are important for senior citizens, who are a growing target audience on the Internet," Zinke, who is an expert for data protection and online policy, told DW.

Portrait Michaela Zinke. (Photo: Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband vzbv)

Users should keep their reviews objective, says Zinke

In order for portals to prevent questions about the validity of the reviews they publish, Zinke suggested offering impartial criteria on which reviewers can answer direct questions. For doctor evaluations for example, the sites could ask users to provide waiting time and time the doctor took with the patient in the exam room. As Zinke put it: "Impartial criteria lead to objective reviews."

And if there is an issue with a review that is made up or insulting, the injured party can still go to the police. If a doctor or hotel owner presses charges against an unknown reviewer, the police will do everything within the scope of the law to try to get the reviewer's name from the portal, lawyer Eva Dzepina said.

She personally doesn't think that this is the way to go in the future. If everyone who feels offended by a bad review goes to the police, "we would soon need many more police officers," Dzepina said.

Under the circumstances many people will continue to go to court until clearer rules on slander and libel emerge for the Internet.

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