Friday, September 24, 2010

English Hotels Angry Over TripAdvisor Reviews Say They May Sue

A bunch of hotels in England are making nattering noises about suing TripAdvisor for publishing negative user-generated reviews.

That this would happen in England should be no surprise. England has long had a reputation among the first-world nations of being on occasion unfriendly toward the nuances of what we in the United States understand as free speech. In England, if someone's ox gets gored in the media, that someone can run to a friendly court and sue. English libel law has it that a defendant in a libel or defamation suit must prove that the assertions in dispute are true, rather than the aggrieved plaintiff having to prove in court that they are false -- which is the way it works in the U.S.

Legal systems like England's (and English courts tend to be more severely disposed toward libel defendants than those in the rest of the United Kingdom) have long been bothersome to foreigners, like Americans, publishing in England. But the Internet has thrown a new wrench into the process, because it's been established that anything published online, say in the United States, is automatically also published everywhere else in the world, including, say, England.

Now, there are a lot of crappy hotels in England, outside of London. There is a reason that Fawlty Towers still resonates in TV reruns.

TripAdvisor has about a half-million reader-generated reviews of tens of thousands of hotels in the U.S. and around the world, including in England. And some of those reviews are harsh.

The hotel hubbub in England is important because TripAdvisor has become one of the most popular sources among travelers for hotel reviews. Most travelers I know, myself included, routinely check TripAdvisor hotel reviews because we trust them, by and large. If a given hotel has, say 50 reviews (and some have far more, such as the Belagio in Las Vegas, which has over 3,500), it's a quick job to scan them and get a very general idea of what's what.

Sure, you might spot an occasional review obviously written by a wackjob (loons have a notoriously difficult time disguising themselves), but in general, we all know enough to glean the gist off the TripAdvisor review data. We're all smart enough online to spot the occasional glowing review written by the hotelier's mother among the razzes written by customers who have found roaches in the sink and used condoms on the floor.

This kind of unregulated, freewheeling reviewing does not sit well among many people who operate hotels in which guests have had poor (or worse) experiences. So rather than fixing the problems and getting a hotel up to snuff, why not sue TripAdvisor, which is owned by Expedia, for defamation and shut up the critics?

According to the Independent newspaper in London, "more than 400 hotels are considering suing [TripAdvisor] for defamation, claiming the comments are damaging their businesses." In England as in the U.S., TripAdvisor is a hugely popular resource for hotel reviews.

The aggrieved hoteliers "have indicated they may join a `group defamation action' against TripAdvisor, which carries `unbiased' reviews, written by members of the public, of hotels and other businesses," says the Independent, whose reporter was unaccountably allowed to stick those snotty air-quotes around the word "unbiased."

Unless the negative reviews are removed, " proceedings could begin shortly, according to KwikChex, a Bournemouth-based reputation-management firm, which is canvassing support for a case." KwikChex tells the Independent that "many of its clients suspect disobliging reviews are invented or exaggerated, or posted by business rivals using online anonymity to damage successful competitors."


TripAdvisor told the Independent, "We believe our more than 35 million reviews and opinions are authentic and honest from real travelers, which is why we enjoy tremendous user loyalty and growth. If the reviews people read didn't paint an accurate picture, users would not keep coming back. Our advice when reading through the reviews of a property is to throw out the anomalies that appear overly critical or overly complimentary. What is left is the collective wisdom of the community."

Certainly abuses can occur in the melee that is crowd-sourcing of travel reviews. But the popularity of sites like TripAdvisor is a very definitive statement from travelers that they no longer particularly value, or trust, travel guidebooks -- which are often out of date before they're printed, and reflect only a very small body of opinion, even if that opinion is honest. (Which it sometimes is not.)

Earlier this year, I wrote about one of TripAdvisor's occasional publicity stunts, in this case the annual "Dirtiest Hotels" list. Some of the nastiest reviews of some hotels (from all over the world) included these harsh comments:

--"Cradle of filth: The worst, worst, worst hotel in the world!"

--"Slept in my clothes!"

--"Made me think of my own grave."

That list, which got tons of merry publicity in the media, did not go down well in Britain. Even back then the Independent was fretting, and reported that hotels in Europe wanted to persuade the European Union Commission to "overhaul the rules governing Web site reviews to ensure that they have been posted by genuine guests and not by rivals or people simply out to cause mischief."

Causing mischief will not do, of course.

The grief in England was not mitigated by the fact that TripAdvisor list also named some hotels in the United States. Sample comment: "Sleep in your car, not here!")

TripAdvisor's CEO, Stephen Kaufer, told me then that TripAdvisor goes to some trouble to weed out obvious ringers, not just among bad reviews but also among good ones. TripAdvisor, like most publishers in the U.S., operates under the solid assumption that the U.S. First Amendment's protections of free speech apply to online reviews. Hotels in the U.S. generally welcome robust reviewing, and take the bad with the good.

"In pretty much every country I can be sued for any reason, or no reason," he said in February. He added:

"We feel like we are regurgitating the truth as our travelers tell it. Please believe me, we are careful about the [dirtiest hotel] list so a hotel isn’t named just because there are four bad reviews. We dealing with someone’s reputation. It’s the ones that are consistently bad -- and I challenge any curious individual to check out one of these places and see whether they deserve to be on the list."

Is the list "lawyered?" I asked, meaning, was it given a legal review for potential libel? No, he said. The list is compiled under U.S. standards of free speech, including standards of what constitutes fair opinion. "If someone wants to challenge us, so be it," he said.

We'll see if the aggrieved English hoteliers are serious about suing.

One thing has changed in the equation. Last month, a new federal law went into effect in the U.S. that protects Americans from being subject to foreign libel and defamation judgments for speech made in the U.S. and fully protected by the First Amendment. That law, which passed unanimously in both houses of Congress before it was signed by President Obama, was largely driven by growing concerns about freewheeling libel abuses in England, where American authors, journalists and even scientists have been successfully sued in cases that would not stand up in a U.S. court. And in England, lawyers who make a living filing libel and defamation suits against Americans are still harrumphing about it.

[Disclosure: Having been sued for libel in Brazil on spurious charges of defaming the entire nation of Brazil by my accurate reporting and blogging in the U.S. after the horrific 2006 mid-air Amazon collision, I was among those who worked to support passage of this law. The main impetus, though, was the case of Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, a New York scholar who lost a libel case in the notorious English High Court to a Saudi billionaire whose role in financially supporting terrorism she briefly, and accurately, described in her U.S.-published book, "Funding Evil."]


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