Skift Take

Let's be clear: Not all hotel guests and review-writers are angels. But the solution is not dodgy hotel contracts and taking punitive actions against customers. Business owners, as well as consumers, should remember the wisdom of the crowds is pretty good at protecting from one-sided and impure reviewers.

Some hotels and other businesses have come up with a sneaky way to discourage unfavorable guest or customer reviews — prohibit them in the fine print of their terms and conditions.

The U.S. House of Representatives took a major step Monday to bar such punitive actions by businesses. The House approved in a voice vote, indicating bipartisan support, the Consumer Review Fairness Act. The bill would prohibit businesses from issuing standard contracts to customers barring them from writing derogatory reviews, including publishing what the businesses might consider to be disparaging photos.

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The House bill would have to be reconciled with the previously adopted and very similar U.S. Senate version before being sent to the President for his signature,

In recent years, businesses have increasingly resorted to such punitive contracts, although such practices are not the norm when a guest stays at a hotel, for example.

However, Stephen Kaufer, the CEO of TripAdvisor, which supports adoption of the Act, wrote of a Canadian hotel that tacked on a $3,000 fee to a guest’s credit card after he wrote a negative review. The guest apparently unwittingly had agreed to such penalties when signing an agreement at check-in, Kaufer wrote.

In another incident, a pet-care service in Texas sued a couple who had used its service for up to $1 million for writing a negative Yelp review.

Yelp notifies users on its website when businesses are employing such heavy-handed practices with a notice headlined: “Consumer Alert: Questionable Legal Threats.”

“This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers,” the Yelp website notice states. “As a reminder, reviewers who share their experiences have a First Amendment right to express their opinions on Yelp.”

The Consumer Fairness Review Act prohibits businesses from writing standard contracts that bar negative reviews but wouldn’t stop a business from suing for libel, for example.

While review writers occasionally find themselves in harm’s way, review publishers such as TripAdvisor and Yelp enjoy broad protections from such suits over reviews because of the U.S. Communications Decency Act.

With support from Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Edith Ramirez, Representatives Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican, introduced the Consumer Review Fairness Act bill that the House approved Monday.

In addition to sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, which host millions of consumer reviews, the Internet Association and the Travel Technology Association, both based in Washington, D.C., were among the backers of the bill.

If the House and Senate reconcile the bills they adopted — and the differences are said to be minor — the bill would become law if President Obama signs it.

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Tags: congress, tripadvisor, ugc, yelp

Photo credit: Consumer and user-generated reviews on TripAdvisor. A new law seeks to bar business contracts that would prohibit customers from writing negative reviews.

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