The debate on how much control businesses should have over their online reviews has made its way to Washington.
On Tuesday, U.S. Reps. Eric Swalwell and Brad Sherman, both Democrats from California, introduced the Consumer Review Freedom Act, which bans businesses from adding “non-disparagement” clauses to contracts that consumers must sign. The bill, if passed, would prevent businesses from fining or penalizing customers who leave negative reviews—or at least stop them from intimidating customers into only leaving positive reviews on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List or Facebook.
The bill says that if a business makes a customer sign any sort of written agreement, that contract cannot include a clause that stops them from posting “written, verbal, or pictorial review, performance assessment of, or other similar analysis of, the products, services, or conduct of a business.” The lawmakers argue that such clauses are often buried in consumer contracts and people unwittingly sign away their rights to leave negative reviews online if they have a bad customer experience.
However, the bill would not prevent the business from suing a customer for defamation or slander if he or she posts a particularly damaging review online. And employers would still be allowed to require their employees—just not their customers—to sign non-disparagement clauses, according to The Verge.
“No country that values free speech would allow customers to be penalized for writing an honest review,” Swalwell said in a news release. “I introduced this legislation to put a stop to this egregious behavior so people can share honest reviews without fear of litigation.”
Several cases of businesses trying to prevent unhappy customers from leaving unflattering online reviews—or strike back at them after the fact—have made headlines in recent months. Union Street Guest House, a Hudson, New York, bed and breakfast, was sharply criticized for wanting to charge wedding parties $500 for every negative review they left. The owner has since apologized and retracted the policy.
A law banning non-disparagement clauses was recently passed in California, which could add fuel to the passage of this new bill.
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