Buy My Vote: Online Reviews for Sale

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Kendall L. Short · 15 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 441

Abstract

The Internet has granted consumers access to a wealth of information to use in researching products and services. A substantial portion of this information consists of online consumer reviews, which hold great influence over consumers’ purchasing decisions due to their perceived honesty and independence from the company. The problem with relying on these reviews, however, is that real consumers may not be the authors; instead, companies often hire writers to fabricate reviews, known as “opinion spam,” which can either be positive for the hiring company or negative toward an innocent competitor. Because these fake reviews are difficult to detect, both consumers and competing businesses suffer harm. Parties looking to sue for this harm must overcome the writers’ First Amendment-protected anonymity, making it a challenge to bring private actions for defamation or complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Moreover, while the FTC has the authority to pursue its own claims against the writers and the hiring companies under its revised guidelines, it has failed to pursue many cases, in part because of the struggle to identify the perpetrators. And those groups with the most power to block such reviews from the Internet—the hosting websites—are immune from suit under the Federal Communications Decency Act (FCDA). This Note advocates for greater involvement by the FTC, urges Congress to amend the FCDA to eliminate website immunity, and encourages the websites to establish greater measures to bar suspicious reviews and gather more information to assist in identifying the purveyors of opinion spam.