One of the advantages of having the Internet in our pocket is the ability to read reviews and opinions of businesses we are contemplating using or visiting in the coming days, hours or even minutes. Services such as Google+, Google Maps, Amazon, Yelp and others have provided a means of leaving a review and a rating of a business and for the consumer, an easy way to read up on these. However, what if a disgruntled ex-employee were to start a campaign of leaving poor ratings and low star ratings? For the smaller business, one or two low star ratings can have a massive impact on the overall star rating and could discourage potential customers from using the facility. Fortunately, for some businesses, those individuals leaving fake reviews are not always the brightest – things such as creating a fake profile that is copied from another, and copy / pasting reviews from one site into another, can seemingly make it easy to prove that this is a malicious and non-genuine review. Or so one nursery in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, thought when the owner identified a number of fake and negative reviews on Google services.
In the case of the nursery, the business suffered from harassing reviews over six months with claims that the business was harming children. The reviews were posted via Google+ and are regular users of Google Maps know, these reviews appear when browsing Maps. The business decided to fight back and requested that Google take the malicious reviews down. At the time, the nursery included what their lawyer called proof of the fake profiles, including copied pictures, and copied reviews from other websites. However, Google refused to take the reviews down citing that information posted via the Google+ comes under a freedom of speech law, plus negative or anonymous reviews cannot be justification in itself to remove them. The nursery decided to pursue the case and took Google to court. At the court, the judge determined that these reviews were both false and damaging and required that Google remove the reviews. However, the judge went further: the court rules that Google provides the nursery with contact details from reviewers, such as IP addresses, so that they may be directly confronted and taken to court. The lawyer explained: “The judge balanced the interests of privacy against the interest of reputation (of this nursery). However, it considers the interests of protecting the reputation more important than the interests of Google to the interest of privacy of the Google Reviewers.”
Although Google was ordered to pay the court fees – a little over â‚¬2,000 – it is more notable that this is the first time Google has been required to provide contact details and IP addresses for Google reviews. It highlights the difficulties that websites containing reviews face, trying to navigate between a freedom of speech law, user privacy laws and removing malicious content. In North America, it is currently impossible to force Google to provide contact details of reviewers and this highlights the potential difficulties of a business operating in many corners of the world. The European “right to be forgotten” rulings are forcing search engines to remove links to individuals if requested on certain grounds: this is also making life difficult for search engines, caught between trying to make information readily accessible and maintaining user privacy. In some respects, The Netherlands to Europe is somewhat similar to California to North America: court decisions here are often a leading indicator to changes in the coming years.