If that hotel room really was filthy, that pet sitter really fell down on the job, or that wedding planner really screwed up the big day, it’s now safe to say so in a truthful online review, thanks to bipartisan legislation President Obama has signed into law.
The Consumer Review Fairness Act takes aim at so-called gag clauses sometimes embedded in the fine print of some commercial agreements, including hotel room rentals. Some consumers sign off on the restrictions, have a bad experience and post online about it, only to find themselves on the business end of a lawsuit. The White House announced in an early Thursday morning statement that Obama had signed the measure.
“Too many companies are burying nondisparagement clauses in fine print and going after consumers when they post negative feedback online. This will now end,” according to Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., the lead author of the new law in the House of Representatives. “Online reviews and ratings are critical in the 21st century, and consumers should be able to post, comment and tweet their honest and accurate feedback without fear of retribution.”
The “honest and accurate” wording is important: The new law doesn’t offer protection to people who deliberately lie about a company or service provider.
With the rise in online consumer review sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, some businesses have hit back at feedback they consider inaccurate or unfairly damaging to their reputations.
A judge recently dismissed a $1 million lawsuit that a Dallas, Texas, pet-sitting service filed against a couple over their one-star Yelp review in 2015. Michelle and Robert Duchouquette said that their betta fish’s tank looked cloudy and complained about Prestigious Pets’ communications and billing practices. The firm reportedly countered in court documents that it was hired to care for the couple’s dogs, not the fish. The company’s average on Yelp is 4.5 stars out of 5, but its page now includes a warning about its nondisparagement clause.
A wedding vendor in Florida required customers to sign a contract that includes a clause that says “by signing this contract, you are agreeing that you will not make or encourage any disparaging comments about OWPR ever in any form verbal or written,” according to a report in Consumerist.com.
And a Florida apartment complex reportedly threatens tenants who might post complaints online with a $10,000 fine — while also asserting that the company owns the copyright to any renter’s online comments or photographs regarding the property. (“Snap a few shots of friends who come over for a dinner party? The photos are owned by your landlord,” Ars Technica said in its post about the agreement.)
Negative reviews may no longer pull you into a lawsuit, thanks to the new law. But the owner of the business you pan may hit back online — as President-elect Donald Trump did on Twitter Thursday after Vanity Fair suggested that the Trump Grill in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York might be “the worst restaurant in America.”