The phenomenon of fake reviews is something that online businesses and their customers struggle with as a matter of trust and credibility – but now a Dutch court has announced a potentially game-changing ruling, stemming from the issue, but also going well beyond it.
According to IPKat, an EU-eccentric blog exploring copyright, patent and trademark issues, Google will have to remove a batch of negative reviews from Google Maps, by the order of the Amsterdam District Court.
The case was brought by an Amsterdam tailor, who was faced with a flurry of negative reviews whose veracity he tried to first contest with Google. The giant rejected his request to remove the comments – but the court has now taken his side, finding enough evidence to qualify the reviews as vengeful and coming from only one person or several persons using different fake names, united in the goal of damaging the tailor's reputation.
But where the defamation case takes a turn for the unusual is that the court also ordered Google to surrender the review authors' IP addresses, as well as names, e-mails, phone numbers “and other information that could help identify them.”
This is because the plaintiff wants to not only remove the reviews but also sue their authors. The Dutch court found that allowing this course of action was more important than maintaining the anonymity of the authors – and more important than Google's interest “in remaining as neutral as possible as a review platform,” the blog post said.
Google also argued that the decision would have the effect of discouraging users from expressing negative opinions about businesses, but the court ignored this point.
The case, and the ruling, seems to raise more questions than it answers. While businesses should be able to protect themselves against deliberate attempts to sully their reputation, especially on a platform like Google, that dominates the search industry – users should also be able to express their opinions without fear of being tracked down in real life.
The question of how much of a precedent the judgment will prove to be remains to be seen – and also, will something be done – and can it be done – about “positive fake reviews” that are harmful to customers, rather than businesses?