Giving consumers the ability to accurately discover price and quality on the Internet is an important issue. User reviews have the still unrealized potential to help individual consumers crowd-source their influence to improve the marketplace, give them better choices and reward merchants that play fair.
But today, when you gotta have it, you might rationalize picking one online product over another because of its truly excellent average 4.8 user review rating. But as David Streitfield reports in his New York Times story "For $2 a Star, an Online Retailer Gets 5-Star Product Reviews." His lede: "Some exalt themselves by anonymously posting their own laudatory reviews. Now there is an even simpler approach: offering a refund to customers in exchange for a write-up." The story reports on efforts by professor Bing Liu -- an expert on "sentiment analysis" -- to establish a computer algorithm to data-mine the reviews to determine their truthfulness. The story also notes that "Under F.T.C. rules, when there is a connection between a merchant and someone promoting its product that affects the endorsement’s credibility, it must be fully disclosed." Streitfield quotes FTC official Mary K. Engle as "very concerned."
Here's a paper by Liu and a colleague from a few years back (Danger, Will Robinson, it's a short, but somewhat wonky, pdf). And here's a link to a recent $250,000 FTC civil penalty action against a guitar instruction firm charged with "using deceptive advertisements by representing that online endorsements written by affiliates reflected the views of ordinary consumers or “independent” reviewers, without clearly disclosing that the affiliates were paid for every sale they generated." The FTC page also links to its guidelines on paid inducements, endorsements and testimonials on the web, which also apply to bloggers, who often get free stuff or junkets for writing glowing reviews but don't mention it. Not that I would take it, but nobody ever offers me any free stuff. Go figure.
Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post, Dina ElBoghdady reports that "Some doctors try to squelch online reviews;" in this case, they're using boilerplate contracts prepared by a firm called Medical Justice that you must sign before treatment, signing away your right to comment to your doctor. The goal? They're trying to use copyright law to "squelch" valid reviews from patients. She notes that after a disgruntled patient published reviews online, "he received a letter from the dental practice threatening to sue him for at least $100,000 for “defamation, slander and libel.” The letter reminded him that he’d signed an agreement with his dentist that barred him from publishing a critique of her or her office." ElBoghdady discusses a lawsuit against a dentist using Medical Justice boilerplate contracts; she interviews Public Citizen Attorney Paul Alan Levy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs and perhaps the nation's leading expert on how copyright law is being used abusively to block speech on the Internet. Here's a longer post from the Public Citizen Law and Policy blog explaining the case. Levy has also worked with law students at UC Berkeley School of Law and Santa Clara School of Law, who've put up an excellent website called Doctored Reviews.
So, as a consumer, remember that sometimes information on the web may be bought and paid for, written by sockpuppets or worse and therefore harmful, and sometimes good commentary is unfairly suppressed. But, both these problems are being worked on.