When you travel, you have a host of choices to make in terms of travel mode, accommodations and leisure activities at your eventual location.
When you go out to eat, there are numerous choices to be made. People want to know what previous diners think about their possible restaurant choices.
There is an entire industry of websites offering ratings on all of those options. Those ratings can, in some cases, protect consumers from making very bad choices that will cost them money and pleasure.
But for some companies, negative reviews of hotels, restaurants or entertainment venues are not desired. In some cases, negative reviews are not allowed at all.
Which brings us to The Young House, an historic inn in Ontario which advertises itself on the popular website Airbnb. A family staying at the inn had complaints regarding the pluming in the bathroom of their room, and said so on Airbnb, which invites customer reviews.
The owner of Young House, which knew of the customer’s complaints prior to the review, threatened to sue the customers for $30,000 for violating their guest policies, which allow for positive reviews but consider negative reviews illegal under Canada’s libel laws, which are stricter than American laws.
The question is whether travelers should be allowed to issue negative reviews for their accommodations or travel experiences.
Many hotels carry guest policies that state negative online reviews are not allowed. That included a hotel in Blackpoll, England, which charged a couple 100 pounds extra for a one-night hotel stay after the couple described the lodging as a “hovel” on TripAdvisor. That charge was eventually refunded after the company contacted every news agency in England to tell their story.
The owner of a Hudson, N.Y., hotel issued a public apology after posting an “official’’ policy on the hotel’s website and Facebook page claiming there would be a $500 fine for negative reviews posted to any site that advertises that hotel’s availabilities. The owner said the fine was actually a “joke’’ but apologized after hotel employees more than once tried to collect on the fine.
There are companies that claim they will, for a fee, get your hotel or restaurant’s negative review removed from the website. But that would require approval from the website itself, so it is uncertain such a practice is even possible without consent from the person posting the review.
An investigation by Slate.com into the legality of restricting customer reviews found that there are few if any laws directly referring to that practice. However, Eric Goldman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, said it is generally accepted that any contract restricting opinions about services rendered would be considered illegal.
"There are some things we just don't allow contracts for," Goldman said. "The restriction on people being able to share their opinions about products and services in a marketplace—that's something we're not going to allow."
However, a new law in California does in fact fine companies up to $10,000 if they use contracts that prevent customers from expressing any opinion online about a good or service. The law states businesses may not impose contract terms “waiving the consumer’s right to make any statement regarding the seller or lessor or its employees or agents, or concerning the goods or services.|
This year, a similar law has been introduced into the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. The Consumer Review Freedom Act is currently under consideration in Congress.
In response to a local restaurant threatening parties of five or more “may be held legally liable for generating any potential negative, verbal or written defamation against” the establishment, the Boston globe contacted the Harvard Law School to see if that was legal.
Andy Sellars, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, called it “watered-down legalese that means nothing. Defamation is a false statement of fact made knowingly that can be proven to have caused harm, but opinions are not defamation.
“If I said the service was terrible — ‘terrible’ is an opinion, you can’t sue someone for that,” Sellars said. “Very few reviews would actually be defamation.”
In another California court case, Yelp.com was found not guilty in a class action lawsuit that claimed it was charging businesses to have negative reviews removed from the site. The charge was reportedly in the form of advertising, and companies said if they did not comply the positive reviews for their business suddenly disappeared from the site.
Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for www.nba.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.
In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.
McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.
McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy Buffett and all things Disney.