29 January, 2016
In 2009, John and Jen Palmer posted a critical online comment about a business.
The Palmers said they ordered and paid for a small toy and a keychain for $20 from KlearGear.com, but never got the items. They said they could never reach anyone at KlearGear to fix the problem. They posted their complaint on RipoffReport.com.
Three years later, Jen Palmer said her husband received an email from KlearGear demanding they remove the post. If not, he was told, he would have to pay a $3,500 fine.
KlearGear said the Palmers violated the company's policy that bars customers from posting critical comments.
It is becoming common practice for businesses to demand money from customers who criticize them online, according to Eric Goldman, a Santa Clara University law professor. He follows Internet legal issues.
These "do not criticize" clauses come as review sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, Angies List and ZocDoc become more popular. Comscore, an online research company, lists Yelp and TripAdvisor among the top 50 websites in the U.S. The sites have more visitors than even Netflix and ESPN.
Jen Palmer said she and her husband tried to remove their critical post, but could not get Ripoff Report to take it down. They refused to pay the $3,500 fine demanded by KlearGear. They said they did not believe the company had the right to demand it.
Two years later, a judge agreed with them. He said the company was wrong to demand money and to report the couple's refusal to pay to a credit rating agency. That hurt the Palmers credit rating and made it impossible for them to finance the purchase of a furnace and car, Jen Palmer said.
The judge awarded the couple over $300,000 in damages.
At a recent Senate hearing, consumer advocates said what happened to the Palmers is not unusual. They gave some examples:
- A New York City inn fined newlyweds $500 for every critical review posted by them or their wedding guests.
- A dentist demanded $100 a day from a patient for each day he kept an online posting accusing the dentist of overcharging him.
- The U.S. owner of a Paris rental apartment barred renters from using "blogs or websites for complaints."
In all three cases, the business owner either backed down or was ordered to stop by a court.
But Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, said the public will never know how many critical online postings get taken down under pressure.
Most people, he said, would "rather avoid the "threat of excessive penalties, costly litigation or damage to their credit scores."
Since that November Senate hearing, the Senate passed Thune's bill to stop companies from blocking critical online comments. The bill is now pending in the House of Representatives.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. But backers of the Thune legislation say the guarantee applies mostly to government, not private businesses. The First Amendment Center notes that the Supreme Court has said that private organizations can limit free speech on their property.
Some business groups complain that some online reviewers make up problems. One hotel owner wrote that a customer who described his hotel as a "filthy" did not even stay there.
TripAdvisor has responded to such criticism. The website said it allows businesses to respond to every review – positive or negative. And most hotels get many reviews, making it hard for a single very negative or very positive review to have much effect, TripAdvisor said.
Bruce Alpert researched and reported this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
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Words in This Story
post – v. to write an online message
keychain – n. a holder of keys
customer – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business
clause – n. legal language in a contract or document
review -- n. an act of carefully looking at or examining the quality or condition of something
newlyweds – n. A newly married couple
overcharge – v. to charge too much for something
excessive – adj. going beyond what is usual, normal, or proper
penalty -- n. punishment for breaking a rule
filthy – adj. very dirty