The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act on Monday, which will protect customers from businesses when providing negative feedback. The bipartisan legislation essentially makes it illegal for companies to utilize “gag orders” in which consumers are inhibited from expresssing their opinions.
“This bill is about protecting consumers posting honest feedback online,” said Congressman Leonard Lance (NJ). “Online reviews and ratings are critical in the 21st Century and consumers should be able to post, comment and tweet their honest and accurate feedback without fear of retribution. Too many companies are burying non-disparagement clauses in fine print and going after consumers when they post negative feedback online. That needs to stop.”
If the legislation gets signed into law by the President—it has to first get reconciled with the 2015 bill passed in the U.S. Senate called the Consumer Review Freedom Act—then its impact will be two-fold: it will invalidate any existing gag orders and it will give the Federal Trade Commission the power to crack down on businesses that attempt to use them.
Consumerist highlights the significance of this legislation by listing a number of instances where companies have acted out of line, from online retailer KlearGear’s $3,500 penalty after a customer wrote a negative review to an apartment complex that tried to hold the copyright to property photos and reviews. Advocates of the bill include public interest groups and review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
“The protection of free speech and expression, both online and off, should be a top priority of our government, and all Americans,” said Yelp lobbyist Laurent Crenshaw in a statement. “With a similar bill having already passed the Senate, it is our hope that gag clauses will soon be explicitly prohibited across America by the end of the year.”
Meanwhile TripAdvisor’s Senior Vice President of Global Product, Adam Medros, said the following in a statement: “Bullying consumers into keeping quiet about their genuine travel experiences goes against everything we stand for at TripAdvisor, and denies freedom of expression. When businesses attempt to silence consumers with fine print, everyone is harmed. We will continue to offer our full support of the act until it is passed into law.”
While the legislation safeguards consumers from gag orders and lets them speak freely, it does not protect them from being held responsible for defamatory, libelous or false content.