Two Congressmen, Eric Swalwell and Brad Sherman, both from California, have just introduced legislation designed to prevent businesses from taking retaliatory measures against consumers who leave negative online reviews about their experiences, the National Journal reports.
At issue here are the fines (sometimes hundreds of dollars, occasionally thousands) that business owners have attempted to levy against consumers who leave negative reviews on Yelp. Swalwell calls the practice of fining customers for honest reviews “Un-American.” If the legislation he co-sponsored passes, it will be illegal for businesses to put non-disparagement clauses into your customer contracts. A non-disparagement clause is any language threatening to impose a fine for posting negative comments. If you go ahead and do that anyway, you’re going to be facing trouble from both the Federal Trade Commission and your own state’s attorney general.
It’s important to understand the full implications of this law. Untrue reviews are not considered protected speech under this legislation, but as any business owner who has attempted to talk to Yelp’s administrators will tell you, proving that a review is not factual nor representative of what happened is hardly easy.
Swalwell and Sherman may have put forward this bill with the best of intentions, but it’s clear that they don’t understand how little power business owners actually have on the Yelp platform. If nothing else, the fact that as many as 1 in 4 Yelp reviews are filtered out via an undisclosed algorithm that appears to consider a company’s status as a Yelp advertiser as one of many factors in how many positive reviews ever get to see the light of day, this is problematic at best.
Don’t get me wrong – fining your customers was never a good idea, and has no place in the reasonable business owner’s marketing strategy. Protecting customers against unfair business practices is a good idea. I’m just curious when congress will put equal energy and attention into protecting small business owners against the blatantly unfair practices Yelp engages in every day.