Guitars are not violins
I once took my violin for a repair at a music shop, but suspected the repair was botched. My suspicions were confirmed when I took the instrument to a professional luthier the next town over.
So I decided to write a review of the first shop on Yelp. I wasn’t being vindictive or whiny. I just wanted other violinists to know that the guitar repair guy in town wasn’t really qualified to fix violins. It was nothing personal. I didn’t think it was fair for other musicians to waste their money on a bad repair like I did.
That’s the beauty of reviews, especially for online businesses. There are plenty of companies out there, some you’ve never even heard of. Reviews from real life customers can really help businesses.
Bad reviews can hurt
Of course, bad reviews can be bad for business. Some companies have tried to stop customers from writing negative reviews by sneaking a “non-disparagement” clause into the terms of service you have to agree to before making a purchase, especially a large purchase.
These clauses, more casually known as “gag clauses,” punish customers with exorbitant fees if they write, or even threaten to write a negative review.
A $3,500 penalty for a negative review?
Recent examples include a Utah couple that made a small purchase (less than $20) from an online retailer called Kleargear.
The couple never received their order, so they wrote a bad review of Kleargear. They were slammed with a $3,500 penalty from the company.
Luckily the court ruled in favor of the customers, charging Kleargear over $300,000 for damaging the couple’s credit score.
The laws aren’t universal yet
The court also dismissed a suit in which a Texas pet sitter tried to sue customers $1 million for writing a bad review on Yelp. As the court has shown, these non-disparagement fees are almost impossible to enforce since they violate the consumer’s First Amendment rights.
Congress is working to bring the law into line. They recently passed a bill preventing companies from using gag clauses.
Get to know the Consumer Review Freedom Act
The Consumer Review Freedom Act will give the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general the power to prevent companies from using gag clauses. The Act was passed by the Senate in late 2015, and its companion bill passed in September of this year.
“By ending gag clauses, this legislation supports consumer rights and the integrity of critical feedback about products and services sold online,” said the bill’s sponsor, Senator John Thune.
Now that the election is over and Congress is back in session, the bill will be passed to the White House, where Obama is expected to sign it into law.
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