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If you’ve ever bought, booked or sold anything online, you probably would have experienced the substantial impact of online reviews. Consumer reviews can have a powerful effect on the success and popularity of a product. With the expansion of online platforms and more consumers heading online to check reviews before making a purchase, the importance of honest and trustworthy testimonials is rapidly increasing.

The reality is that some reviews are fake, some may be real, and others may be paid for. Below, we look at out how the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is monitoring and regulating the authenticity of online reviews.

ACCC Guidelines

In 2013, the ACCC released guidelines for online reviews and testimonials. These guidelines are not ‘new laws’ – rather they are used to help identify misleading and deceptive conduct, which the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) prohibits. In particular, section 29(1)(e) and (f) of the ACL prohibits making false or misleading representations that purport to be, or support, a testimonial relating to goods or services.

The following core principles underscore the ACCC’s main concerns and direct businesses and review platforms to adhere to the guidelines:

  •    Be transparent about commercial relationships;
  •    Do not post or publish misleading reviews; and
  •    The omission or editing of reviews may be misleading.

The ACCC has emphasised that violating these guidelines is likely to breach the ACL, with penalties of up to $1.1million for engaging in misleading conduct.

The New ICPEN Guidelines

In June this year, the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) released a set of guidelines for the collection, moderation and publication of online reviews. The ICPEN is a network of consumer law regulators from around the world, including the ACCC. These guidelines target three different bodies:

  •    Review Administrators;
  •    Traders and Marketing Professionals; and
  •    Digital influencers

1. Review Administrators

Review administrators are organisations or individuals that collect and publish consumer reviews, such as Trip Advisor. The ICPEN guidelines caution review administrators to:

  • Be equal and fair in the collection of reviews – regardless of whether they are positive or negative;
  • Disclose where they have offered incentives to consumers to write reviews;
  • Be alert and proactive in the moderation of reviews; and
  • Be transparent in the publication of reviews.

2. Traders and Marketing Professionals

These titles include the suppliers of products and the marketers that assist them by promoting their products or services through review platforms, blogs or other social media.

Professionals should abide by the following guidelines to ensure honest and accurate reviews: 

  • Do not prevent consumers from seeing the whole picture of genuine, relevant and lawful reviews;
  • Do not write, commission or publish fake reviews;
  • Prominently disclose the payment of any incentive; and
  • Disclose commercial relationships that are relevant to the content.

3.  Digital Influencers

“Digital influencers” is a broad category and extends to anyone who posts online, whether on their own blog or Facebook profile, or a review platform – basically, consumers with a high profile and the ability to sway the purchasing decisions of other consumers. As such, the ICPEN guidelines recommend that the following principles guide digital influencers:

  • Disclose, clearly and prominently, the payment of any incentive;
  • Disclose commercial relationships that are relevant to the content; and
  • Provide genuine views.

Identifying Fake Reviews

As you can see, the underlying principles of the ICPEN guidelines are common sense. However, detecting fake reviews is not so simple. For this reason, the ICPEN have identified common signs to detect fake reviews, including: 

  • The review is part of a sudden spike in reviews for a business; 
  • The review is written from the same email as another review for the business;
  • The review uses clearly fake photos; 
  • The review is in an overly positive tone or ‘marketing speak’;
  • The review is written in an overly negative tone and suggests use of another product; or
  • Other reviews about the business employ the same or similar language; 

Key Takeaways

Consumer reviews are the digital age’s best form of advertisement, and so it’s critical that the information presented is accurate and reliable. The ICPEN guidelines emphasise the need for online reviews to be based on genuine experience and the ACCC are backing them all the way.

To the general public – help your fellow consumer and be honest in your reviews and testimonials.

To businesses – what goes around comes around. Don’t make yourself an easy target for Australia’s consumer watchdog by publishing misleading or fake reviews.

Questions? Get in touch with our consumer lawyers on 1300 544 755.

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