Congress has finally woken up to the importance of protecting consumer reviews.
Better late than never. Since their emergence as a medium for influence in the early 2000s, online consumer reviews, especially negative ones, have been under constant attack from companies. Everyone from vacation rental owners to doctors to hoteliers have tried to stamp reviews out by contractually binding their customers to write good reviews or no reviews at all. Historic lawsuits like the Hadeed Carpet Vs. Yelp case in Virginia have seen companies eager to get at the identities of anonymous users.
In some cases, courts have ruled in favor of reviewers and some states have stepped in, like California, to protect customer reviewers under law. And now, finally, nearly a decade after the first review-related lawsuits started to fly, Congress is finally getting into the act and doing so in dramatic fashion with not one, not two, but three different bills currently moving through the House and Senate.
So will these bills pass muster to actually become law? All signs look positive. So perhaps the most important question is, will these bills sufficiently protect our rights to speak openly about our experiences as customers without fear to retribution? And will they also protect companies from unfair uses of reviews?
Here is a breakdown of the three consumer review protection bills currently in Congress, what they protect, and what they don't:
The farthest ahead in Congress, the Consumer Review Freedom Act aims to illegalize the practice of suing customers who leave negative reviews. It does this mostly by officially applying free speech principles to consumer reviews, which has never been done in the law before.
What does it bring to the table? The Consumer Review Freedom Act is the first to specify electronic reviews as a form of protected free speech, thus putting to rest arguments by companies that online reviews or comments on social media shouldn't be protected as free speech.
Where is it currently? The bill was passed unanimously in the Senate back in December 2015. It now waits to be considered in the House of Representatives.
This bill goes after SLAPP (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) claims by business, which are designed to "to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition."
What does it bring to the table? While it does not protect online reviews specifically, it does go to great pains to protect reviews about the government, government figures, or government actions. It also protects reviews that might appear in the media and works of literature and art.
Where is it currently? SPEAK FREE was introduced in the House on May 13, 2015 and currently waits in the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. The recent sit-in in the House regarding gun control has stymied its progress.
This bill is nearly identical to the Consumer Review Freedom Act in how it aims to classify all reviews-but especially online reviews-as subject to free speech.
What does it bring to the table? The one thing that differentiates this legislation from the Consumer Review Freedom Act is the additional rights it grants to business owners to remove reviews which could give away proprietary company information, for instance, or reveal sensitive private information about their employees.
Where is it currently? This bill was forwarded on June 9 by a subcommittee to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce where it will be put up for a voice vote.
In the end, the more clarity that lawmakers can create around consumer reviews, the better it will be for us. The passage of these bills is all but inevitable. After all, in this issue, politicians have nothing to lose, and free speech is an easy, universally appealing rallying cry. Most importantly, consumer reviews, especially online reviews, will finally be legally protected as free speech.