Money & Business

Bill Could Protect Consumers Who Post Online Reviews

By / Sep 21, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016, a bipartisan bill that passed the House earlier this month, could protect consumers if they post a review on Yelp or elsewhere that’s critical of a business or organization. Here’s what you need to know.

In the era of user-generated reviews, online commenters take their five-star ratings and comments for granted.

But the law doesn’t have their back on one specific aspect of that online action: Sometimes, companies may include “gag orders” in their contracts, which are designed to prevent customers from commenting on poor experiences, putting those users under threat of a lawsuit or fine if they even try to complain.

Just last month, for example, a Texas judge dismissed a lawsuit involving a pet-sitting company that sued a customer for up to $1 million in damages after the customer posted a negative review.

The Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016, which passed the House by voice vote last week, would prevent businesses from using such a tactic. According to Fortune, the bill would invalidate gag orders used to prevent negative online reviews and would give the Federal Trade Commission the legal authority to battle such strategies. (Relevant to employers, this would also apply to reviews on sites such as Glassdoor. The employer-review firm joined Yelp, Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others in supporting the bill last year [PDF].)

“A lot of Americans, particularly in my generation, use those reviews,” Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), a sponsor of the bill, told The Associated Press. “You look at good reviews and you look at bad reviews and both of those are very important.”

(Kennedy is 35, so when he says “my generation,” he’s talking about millennials.)

The Senate passed a similar bill last year; the chamber will now be tasked with reconciling the two bills.

At least one association has spoken in favor of this bill. Earlier this month, the Internet Association argued that contract clauses barring such reviews “are not only wrong, but run afoul of the strong free speech principles that underpin online communication.”

The Consumers Union also has called the bill’s passage a good thing. George Slover, the advocacy group’s senior policy counsel, told The Consumerist that it was legislation worth fighting for.

“These non-disparagement clauses are an outrageous attempt to silence the consumer voice,” Slover said last week. “We’re glad the House has voted to move forward with this bipartisan bill to outlaw these clauses, and we’re going to keep pushing to get it signed into law.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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