Travelers looking to lodge a serious complaint or negative review about a hotel, restaurant, or vacation destination online may soon have greater legal support on their side.
As this thoughtful piece from the Washington Post explains, the recent passage of the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 in the Senate – once reconciled with the version of the bill passed in the House – “would prohibit companies from imposing penalties or fees against reviewers,” effectively offering reviewers “more freedom to express themselves online, particularly when they have had negative experiences.”
This could be a major boon for travelers hoping to warn a fresh wave of consumers away from a scam or shoddy business. In particular, the Post notes, the bill has the potential to help curb the “gag clauses” that are often slipped into contracts as “an unscrupulous way of preventing critical reviews from being published,” as Adam Medros, a senior vice president of global product at TripAdvisor, tells the Post.
But critics of the bill have reason to believe the act may end up being relatively toothless.
As the Post explains:
“…a business can still sue you over a negative review, even one that’s true. The most common tactic would be what’s called a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP — essentially, a nuisance lawsuit designed to shut down a critic.”
The law, as it stands, would not strike down this intimidation tactic, designed to scare consumers into retracting their negative reviews out of fear of retribution from a company with mountains of time and resources at its disposal.
Similarly, the law as passed may not be effective at helping reviewers’ whose complaints get “held in purgatory” – that is, whose negative reviews get delayed or never go live, even as high reviews continue to get posted regularly.
Still, the proposed law “ensures that consumers have the freedom to tell the truth,” notes Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, who testified in support of the law before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Considering the long-term ramifications this could have for the travel and shared vacation industries, this is a developing consumer protection story well worth following in the months ahead.