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Review Sites Under Fire: Useful Consumer Tools or a Plague of Unfairness to Businesses and Professionals?

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By Admin on March 05, 2009 10:12 AM

Most people have used an online consumer review site at some point, whether it be to check out what others thought about the latest gadget, a new restaurant down the street, or obtaining the services of a professional, such as an optometrist, dentist, lawyer, doctor, plumber, etc.. The proliferation of review sites online has made it pretty easy to find somebody's take on just about any consumer product or service need in existence.

However, recently there has been some backlash at various review sites by the businesses and/or professionals being reviewed. The AP reports that some doctors have even taken the unusual step of getting their patients to sign waivers preventing them from posting negative comments online.

In favor of limiting online reviews, the AP noted one argument that:

"'Consumers and patients are hungry for good information' about doctors, but Internet reviews provide just the opposite, contends Dr. Jeffrey Segal, a North Carolina neurosurgeon who has made a business of helping doctors monitor and prevent online criticism."

Segal's North Carolina company, Medical Justice, provides doctors with a standardized waiver agreement to present to patients. Those patients who decide to sign agree not to post online comments about the doctor, "his expertise and/or treatment", whereas those who decline can be advised to seek medical services elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, operators of review sites tend to view the matter quite a bit differently, as exemplified by statements made by John Swapceinski, co-founder of RateMDs.com:

"They're basically forcing the patients to choose between health care and their First Amendment rights, and I really find that repulsive," Swapceinski said.

He said he's planning to post a "Wall of Shame" listing names of doctors who use patient waivers.

The fact of the matter is, however, that businesses or individuals suing consumer review Web sites face an uphill battle. Web sites are protected under federal law against being sued for publishing third-party content. Specifically, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides that: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This doesn't provide sites with blanket immunity for whatever gets thrown up on them, of course, but when it comes to a third-party individual's own, honestly expressed opinions online, it's pretty close.

Because the intent of Congress in passing the law was "to promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media," and "to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation", lawsuits against the operators of review sites often don't get very far and can just be a drain on a business's financial resources.

Lastly, if a review site's users are anonymous, as is the case with RateMDs.com, this can make it an even tougher task to try and pursue legal action for a negative online review, even if the professional/business has some kind of waiver agreement (RateMD.com has refused to take any reviews down based on waivers). However, what seems clear at this point in the development of the Web, is that a growing number of people are starting to ask whether the value being placed on free speech online should begin to give way to some push toward online responsibility. On the other hand, hopefully, we won't have to start signing waivers before getting served our dinner out!