In my last blog I spoke about how the website Trip Advisor helped to influence my choice of holiday destination. While sites such as Trip Advisor offer essential advice to travellers, they can make or break the reputation of hotels. Trip Advisor is now facing legal action from a law firm representing 700 hotels who have received negative reviews, on the grounds of defamation.
This can now bring into question the right of consumers to freedom of speech online. If the hotels win this case, does this mean that consumers are now only allowed to make positive reviews online or will they then face legal action. Surely this will create a situation where the social web becomes victim of online repression, where if you don’t agree with the view of the hotel then you aren’t allowed to express your views. Whilst bad reviews can provide the impetus for hotels to improve their facilities and the services provided, hotel owner Louis Naudi believes that some reviewers go too far with their criticism. His grievance with online reviews is easy to understand when his hotel receives negative reviews for such trivial issues such as cold tea and instead of asking for a fresh pot, they decide to complain online. The main problem facing Trip Advisor is that the site allows anyone to register and post a review. While they have been attempting to eliminate fake reviews using different methods, such as electronic tools to screen each post, users’ ability to flag dubious reviews and allowing hotel owners to reply to reviews, the issues with fake reviews still remain. A more robust review system is employed by hotels.com, which sends users an email requesting feedback once they have returned from their holiday. Whilst it doesn’t deal with the issue of dubious, overlay negative reviews, it at least ensures that all reviewers are genuine. Another case which relates to this issue was a survey of the students of Leeds and their views of their landlords, which resulted in a ‘Top Student Landlords’ poll. The Letting Agency that finished first in the poll began using the results of the survey as part of their marketing output. However, what was intended to be a yearly survey ran by Leeds University had to be stopped due to other letting agencies featured in the survey objecting to the findings of the survey, and the negative portrayal of their service by their customers. So in other words, if someone says something negative about a business on the social web, these comments must be removed or the owners of the website will face legal action. So is the social web really a forum for free speech? I’ll let the courts decide that one.