Amazon is having quite a year.
That embarrassing report about working conditions in the company's warehouses. Jeff Bezos' tone-deaf response to said report. This week's announcement that they're hiring an astounding 100,000 temp workers to man their warehouses for the holidays.
But then there is the story that has really been a running theme throughout the year, that of the company's crusade to hunt down those guilty of sullying the Amazon product review system with fake reviews.
In a blog post published last May, I wrote about Amazon going after the handful of fake reviewers behind the site buyazonreviews.com. Now they're going after a much bigger fish, including 1,100 John Does.
Filed on October 16, their newest lawsuit goes after people who've used Fiverr.com-a site where users can provide services, from programming to writing to voice work, to customers for the flat fee of $5-to provide fake product reviews for Amazon vendors.
What's motivating this crusade? Amazon's recently filed complaint reads:
"While small in number, these reviews can significantly undermine the trust that consumers and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers place in Amazon, which in turn tarnishes Amazon's brand."
I truly believe that fake reviews pose a serious risk to not only Amazon, but the entire online marketplace. It's a subject that's near and dear to our hearts here at bestcompany.com. (For a deeper dive into how these fake reviews endanger the very fabric of the Amazon universe, check out my other post) But, with these lawsuits launching and more sure to follow, the bigger question becomes: Can Amazon sue people over fake reviews?
It turns out, even for a powerful corporation like Amazon, this is not as easy as you might think. It requires more than a crack team of rabid corporate attorneys. There are some fundamental obstacles that might make Amazon's lawsuits ultimately only a scare tactic. Here are the six biggest problems:
Fundamental to the notion of a fake review is that the reviewer is speaking untruthfully about their experience with the product. Often, this means that the reviewer is speaking overly positively about a product experience that, in all actuality, wasn't very positive or never happened at all. This last instance is going to be a real sticking point for Amazon.
After all, how exactly do you prove that someone never used a product? Or if they did use the product, how do you prove that their review is more glowing than what actually occurred? Short of having video and written communication-Amazon resorted to having undercover teams pose as fake review buyers, sting operation-style-these things are next to impossible to prove.
And fake reviewers have anticipated this loophole. During Amazon's sting operation, fake reviewers would have them send empty envelopes in the mail, just in case they needed to prove that they had received a product.
Amazon's complaint doesn't list the names of the people it's going after. Why? Because, at the moment, they don't know who they are. Yes, the fake reviewers of Fiverr are clever foxes.
They've made sure to keep their identities hidden behind usernames. They use multiple accounts on Amazon (as many as 80 accounts or more, according to the complaint) and make sure, when they post reviews, to do it from various IP addresses.
Amazon's only hope of a serious lawsuits, then, will lie in their ability coerce Fiverr, either through the legal system or otherwise, into giving up the true identities of the 1,114 allegedly fake reviewers on their site. Most Internet companies are pretty skittish about giving up their customers' personal information, for reasons we'll discuss below.
In a country where you can do just about anything and pass it off as free speech, how will you successfully prosecute a group of people for a supposed opinion they left on an e-commerce site? Fake or not, what makes a review any different than a profanity-laced tirade from Howard Stern? Speech doesn't have to be truthful to be protected as free speech.
Of course, Amazon sees this issue not as one of free speech, but as a breach of contract.
"According to the complaint, the reviewers are liable for breach of contract since, as Amazon customers, they are bound by the company's terms of service," explained Jeff John Roberts at Fortune. "Amazon also claims the fake reviews are unfair and deceptive under Washington law, and amount to unlawful interference with third-party contracts."
The court's verdict in this lawsuit, if it goes to trial, will set a major precedent for the limits of free speech in the online space and the use of free speech in speaking against entities like businesses, corporations, and the government.
Privacy is no small thing for Internet users and companies. Many notable Internet companies have gone to court to fight against having to expose their customers' personal information. This happens mostly because they know that they would lose their customers if they became known as the company that just rolled over and gave up customer information to everyone who asked for it. It's a soft spot for customers, so it's a soft spot for companies.
For this reason, companies have fought tooth and nail to protect customer privacy-and historically, courts have sided with them.
One of the best-known examples of this happened when a Virginia carpet cleaning business received negative reviews on Yelp and tried to sue the alleged reviewers for defamation in their local Circuit Court. As part of the lawsuit, they subpoenaed Yelp to turn over the reviewers' identities. Yelp refused in favor of protecting their users' First Amendment right to speak anonymously. The case was escalated until it ended up in the state Supreme Court, where the judge ruled that the business would have to file in the state of California, since that was where the data was housed.
Even though the case ended on a minor quibble, it highlights the sticky situation that arises when companies or courts try to coerce Internet companies to reveal sensitive customer data.
At present, the privacy of reviewers is more heavily weighted than a company's desire to clean house. Of course, the Yelp case is different in that it dealt exclusively with negative reviews, whereas the fake Amazon reviewers peddle mostly in glowing positive reviews. But that desire to keep customer data private will definitely work against Amazon if they try to force it out of Fiverr.
Of course, by virtue of the algorithms that Amazon has in place in their review system, false positive reviews will unfairly game the system and make a poor experience for us customers. It's a direct strike at our ability, as customers, to choose the best product available. It's also erodes confidence in the feedback loop-customer leaves review, company sees review and adjusts their product/service accordingly, customer gets better product/service-that makes free markets run.
And there are other, less risky ways to spot fakes. Customer review sites and customers alike can still use human moderators to spot the fakes. For example, reviews that are overly positive, that mirror the company's marketing messaging, or that talk about product features instead of a product experience are strong warning signs that a fake reviewer is at work.
Of course, it's nigh impossible to program your site recognize these warning signs. Instead, Amazon would do well to consider using people to screen out fake reviews.