Rating and review websites give consumers a great way to reward good service, and to warn others about businesses that give bad service. People can review restaurants, hotels, auto mechanics, veterinarians, doctors, lawyers, realtors, and even funeral homes!

Unfortunately, unscrupulous businesses are finding ways to punish people who submit bad reviews.

According to Eric Goldman, an Associate Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law, a private company called “Medical Justice” supplies doctors with contracts that their patients must sign. The contracts then prevent the patients from posting online reviews, even if the doctor provides terrible service!

In some cases, businesses that receive bad reviews online have even sued the reviewers. Rating and review websites operating in the Untied States are generally immune from legal liability based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. However, the act does not protect the consumers who actually post the reviews.

Few businesses would object to positive reviews, but if you want to share a negative review of a business, you should understand how to protect yourself.

Avoiding Legal Liability

Generally, you cannot be held liable if:

  • Reviews are clearly stated as personal opinion, or
  • The reviews are completely true and factual.

So, I would be legally safe if I said, “In my opinion, Joe’s Auto Service is completely unscrupulous! I paid $400 to have my clutch replaced, and when the replacement clutch failed five months later, Joe refused to do anything about it.”

The first part is stated as personal opinion, and the second is a true account of the actual events.

However, even with the law on my side, that might not prevent Joe from suing me, and it could cost me a lot in legal fees to defend myself, even if I eventually won.

Protecting Yourself Through Anonymity

Of course, “Joe” can’t sue you if he can’t find you.

Most review sites require an e-mail address. Even those that don’t usually store an IP address that can be traced back to your computer.

Businesses that you review can legally obtain a subpoena, requiring the review site to disclose this information. The information can then be traced back to the reviewer.

To avoid this, you may want to use a throw-away e-mail address when signing up on a review site, and post your reviews from a wi-fi access point rather than your home or office.

Of course, the specific details of your complaint might still allow the business to identify you and make a legal case against you.

To avoid this, leave out any specific details that could identify you.

Help Others with Fair Reviews

Of course, you should always be fair and honest when posting online reviews, to provide helpful information for other consumers. But it’s worthwhile taking a bit of care to protect yourself.

Don’t be intimidated by the few unscrupulous businesses that attempt to stifle criticism!  (Read more about  so-called “medical gag contracts” in our article Doctors Try to Silence Patients.)

For a list of , visit Ratingz.net.

And to learn more about your legal rights, and news about online ratings, visit the Rating and Review Professional Association, at RARPA.org.



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