[Part one of a two-part special report]
The deVere Group has lost a key legal battle against a US consumer complaints website that posted negative comments about it, but has vowed to continue to fight back against what it calls “the misinformation contained on such sites”.
The case in question – initially brought by deVere in July 2011 against a New York-based company officially known as Opinion Corp, which does business online as PissedConsumer.com – highlights the difficulties and expense that even very large companies like deVere can incur when they attempt to silence such online criticism.
The decision in the case comes as the number and visibility of such so-called “gripe sites” continues to grow, fuelled, some say, by growing consumer dissatisfaction with goods and services, as the businesses providing them cut back during the global downturn, or struggle in the currently difficult economic climate.
In the case of investment products sold before 2008, many investors blame the companies from which they purchased them, as returns have failed to live up to their expectations.
Importantly, though, a growing number of companies that have been targeted by the sites are claiming that many if not most of the postings about their businesses are being put up by disgruntled ex-employees, or individuals who work for rival companies.
This echoes criticisms that have begun to cause issues for other consumer review websites that rely on anonymous postings, such as TripAdvisor.com.
The blanket of anonymity, critics maintain, can make it difficult if not impossible to know how much of the commentary found on these sites, whether negative or positive, is genuine.
Meantime, the UK government is in the process of changing Britain’s defamation laws in a way that will force websites to identify people who have posted defamatory messages online, making it easier and less costly for people to sue their attackers.
The proposed changes would apply to all websites, but the person seeking to sue would need to demonstrate why the case would have to be brought in the UK.
Gripe site trend
As reported here last month, an Atlanta-based lawyer who specialises in helping investors take legal action against negligent stockbrokers and financial advisers has just launched a “gripe site” for disgruntled brokerage clients in the US called BrokerCop.com.
Websites like PissedConsumer, BrokerCop and others with similar names have emerged alongside the development and success of such review sites as Tripadvisor.com, where people are invited to post reviews of their experiences with airlines, hotels, holiday rentals and restaurants.
However, as the term “gripe” sites (and often, the sites’ very names themselves) implies, these sites by their nature exist to publish complaints, rather than a full range of opinions.
(To post a comment on PissedConsumer.com, for example, one clicks a tab marked “post a complaint”, even though once there, the options include “I am pissed”, “neutral” and “I am pleased”. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is virtually impossible to find comments of praise on this particular site.)
Paralleling the emergence of the gripe sites, meanwhile, is another emerging industry, which benefits from the angst gripe sites cause the companies getting griped about: online reputation management.
Online reputation management companies – to quote from the press release of one which calls itself Got Juice – “focus on helping businesses gain positive reviews, and to fight back and remove unwanted negative press from review sites and from the first page of Google”.
“It is estimated that one in 10 reviews [posted on review sites such as Qype, Yelp and TripAdvisor] are fake,” the Got Juice press release, which went out to journalists last week, adds.
It goes on to note that in the UK, where Got Juice is based, defamation laws are difficult to enforce, “as the vast majority of review sites are based overseas, and do not acknowledge the UK law”.
‘First of many’ cases
Nigel Green, founder and chief executive of deVere, which claims to be the largest independent international advisory firm, said the case against Opinion Corp was “the first court case of many that we intend to pursue as we seek to fight back, on behalf of major corporations and ‘real’ consumers around the world, against the misinformation that is contained on such sites”.
“If believed, the ‘content’ on such ‘gripe sites’, which is generally just totally unfounded allegations, could potentially damage the good will and reputation of firms that go out of their way to provide a good service to their clients,” Green added.
Green said deVere went after Opinion Corp in particular because it makes use of “clever search engine optimisation techniques and companies’ names in [its] URL”, in an effort to attract traffic to the site.
“We believe this is bad business practice and morally wrong.”
DeVere is not the only financial institution active in the international space to appear on the Pissedconsumer.com website. Others mentioned have included Globaleye, AES International, Guardian Wealth, One International, and a number of the UK’s biggest banks.
Unlike Green, most of the executives International Adviser contacted whose companies have been targeted by gripe sites declined to talk publicly about them, and in some instances have even asked that their companies’ names not be mentioned in this article, apparently fearful of calling attention to the postings – which, almost all agree, are immensely damaging to their businesses’ reputations.
The key frustration for deVere and these other companies is the commentators’ anonymity. Because the critics’ identities is never revealed, they say, the commentators are free to make serious allegations that – in almost any other setting, such as in a newspaper or on television – would be considered libellous.
What is more, they say, it means the websites are free to leave the allegations in place, for all to see. (In fact, the gripe site operators typically say will in fact remove defamatory, offensive, abusive and otherwise violates someone’s rights if asked. Many also provide links to the company in question's own website, and urge those about to post a complaint to try first to resolve their problem with the customer services department of the company they are about to complain about.)
Companies that have been subject to gripe site attacks say that the anonymity of the criticism once it does appear on the websites makes it difficult for them to arrange a settlement with the individuals in question.
Their main concern, though, is that it is possible for people to pose as aggrieved clients who are not.
“We have evidence to suggest that the majority of false allegations on gripe sites are written by competitors to show to their potential recruits,” deVere’s Green said, echoing the comments of other advisory company executives on the subject.
“Indeed, we have pending legal action against another broker who put false statements on the site against us.”
“The best we can do is request either the webmaster take down the content and/or request Google remove this from the search engines,” added the head of another advisory organisation, who requested anonymity.
“However, both take time and have a limited effect, as once one article is removed, another is posted.”
Like others whose companies have been targeted by the gripe sites, this executive noted that his and other financial advisory companies are in good company when they appear on gripe sites, as they sit alongside “most of the FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies”.
Added another advisory industry executive, who also asked to remain anonymous: “Emirates Airlines [has been targeted by gripe sites], even though it has been voted best airline of the year. There is always some disgruntled pilot who will put stuff up, or some moaning passenger in business class whose bowl of olives was one short.”
Adding to the frustration of companies who find themselves dragged onto gripe sites by anonymous clients or ex-clients or (alleged clients or ex-clients), meanwhile, is the fact that some sites have a firm policy of refusing to remove postings, even when a complaint has been resolved.
The argument behind such policies is that legacy postings provide a useful record for anyone who may be having similar problems with the same company in the future.
But critics claim that this refusal to remove postings that have been resolved can cause lasting damage to companies that actually make a good-faith effort to resolve disputes, by leaving them looking as bad as if they made no effort at all.
Perhaps not surprisingly, anonymity has also been a growing problem at TripAdvisor.com, the acknowledged leader in consumer review websites.
Earlier this month, the Mail on Sunday reported that a diner named “Leila F” claimed on TripAdvisor that she and a friend got food poisoning from a meal at one of British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s newest restaurants.
But “rather than being a genuine case, it seems that Heston may be the latest victim of a growing trend in which people put fake reviews online to damage a business or person, or to provoke a reaction,” the MoS noted. (A spokeswoman for TripAdvisor, the paper noted, responded that the company takes “the authenticity of our reviews very seriously and have numerous methods to manage the legitimacy of the content. If a review is found to be in breach of our guidelines, it will absolutely be removed from the site.”)
In February, meanwhile, TripAdvisor was obliged to rewrite some of its marketing claims by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, which, responding to complaints from hotels, questioned whether the reviews posted on the site could be fully trusted.
"The ASA said it was concerned that consumers might be fooled by fraudulent posts, since the entries could be made "without any form of verification", a BBC report at the time noted.
(TripAdvisor, the BBC said, responded that the ruling was a "highly technical view" of "copy that was used in a limited capacity".)
Click here for part 2: The details of the deVere case – and where some experts see the business of gripe sites and other forms of online commentary heading