Tripadvisor is the world’s largest travel review website, offering travellers “honest advice on where to stay”. Its 40 million hotel reviews are submitted by a huge volunteer community of altruistic amateurs who provide — as the site proudly claims — “real hotel reviews you can trust”. It is a remarkable example of web-based consumer-generated media, being completely free to users while being almost exhaustive in its worldwide coverage of hotels and hostels. But not everyone involved is wholly behind the project.
More than 800 hoteliers whose hotels are featured on Tripadvisor have decided to take legal action against the American-based website over what they consider to be defamatory reviews. Many claim that some of the site’s reviews are “allegations of criminality”, while others feel it is Tripadvisor’s responsibility to check and corroborate any negative feedback it publishes.
KwikChex, which describes itself as an “online reputation services provider”, is organising the lawsuit after it was inundated with complaints. According to Chris Emmins, founder of KwikChex, some Tripadvisor reviews were simply brazen accusations of theft, assault or discrimination. One hotelier was even accused of being a racist after failing to show a customer around her B&B. Some hotels are close to shutting down after negative reviews have driven trade away.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution means that websites such as Tripadvisor, which is based in Massachusetts, have a degree of protection from this sort of litigation. Under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, liability falls on the writer or commentor of the review, rather than on the website, for its “publication”. But the repercussions of this case are potentially profound for the future of “freeconomics” on the internet.
In 2007, an anonymous Tripadvisor reviewer left a bogus review of a Florida hotel, which spent the next three years attempting to identify him. After co-operation from Google, the man was traced and is now being sued for defamation.
If this becomes more commonplace, or if KwikChex turns its attention to individual review posters, well-meaning and honest reviewers will have little incentive to submit their opinions. Consumer-generated media will suffer a crippling setback.
My family owns a hotel in Kent that is featured on Tripadvisor. We have always taken a particular stance to negative feedback: reply to the dissatisfied customer, apologise and take on board the criticism. Common sense really. (Oh, and the hotel has a 4/5 lifetime rating, with 84 per cent of visitors recommending it, in case you were wondering.)