Notes on Google+

Costly fake and defamatory review

I have never understood the point of writing fake reviews. Perhaps some internet trolls find such activities fun, and others may be penning fake reviews for a small fee, but making defamatory comments on what is now a local Google+ page (“Google Maps profile” in the judgement) can cost dear, as a certain Jason Page (aka Jay Page) found out.

Please note that I am not a lawyer, and this piece is essentially a commentary on the case from the perspective of someone who is interested in how Google+ works and more broadly the trends in online reputation management.

Mr Page posted a defamatory review for a law firm and a lawyer with otherwise very good reviews and recommendations that ‘was not only directly defamatory of both Claimants [the law firm and the lawyer], but also inevitably had the effect of undermining those commendations’ on 27 January 2012. Many business owners might attempt to dispute such reviews with Google, or may even ignore the offending materials. The claimants however ‘instructed a firm of California lawyers to obtain a subpoena in respect of Google’s records’ at a considerable cost, and found that the defamatory comments were posted by Mr Page’s Google account. Mr Page did not dispute that the defamatory review was posted by his account, and Mr Page did not assert that the defamatory comments were in any way true.

Instead, Mr Page claimed that his Google account was hacked, and proceeded to present an elaborate scenario in which he was the victim of a vendetta. Mr Page moderates a subreddit, which can be a contentious role, and he put forward an argument that someone was seeking retribution against him because of his editorial decisions. However the judge in this case Sir David Eady was not convinced.

This plan would still, of course, involve the third party successfully hacking into Mr Page’s account in the first place and then making the (very big) assumption that the target (i.e. the Claimants) would actually go to the trouble and expense of identifying Mr Page and thereafter of pursuing him in a foreign jurisdiction. When one comes to assess the competing possibilities, it is fair to say that this somewhat obscure explanation defies probability.

Mr Page is from Telford in England, and the law firm (The Bussey Law Firm, P.C.) and the lawyer (Timothy Raymond Bussey) are located in Colorado Springs in the United States. There does not seem to be any connection between the parties. There may however be an explanation as to why someone from Telford was reviewing a business in Colorado Springs. It seems that the fake review was posted in return for a fiver.

The Claimants established that Mr Page advertised on Twitter as being willing to post “feedback” or “testimonial” (a description which corresponds to the posting complained of here) for $5 via the [sic] website. This would at least provide a possible motive for his targeting the Claimants, of whom he had no personal knowledge or experience. Indeed, it is difficult to know why else he would have done so.

On that basis, Sir David came to the conclusion that Mr Page authored or authorized the post, and the most likely explanation for Mr Page’s post to be financial. Sir David awarded £50,000 in damages to the claimants.

In Mr Bussey’s line of work, a good reputation has an important value, hence pursuing the defamer made sense. Also Mr Bussey would not have been fazed by the prospect of legal processes. For many business owners though, the potential costs but also the stress of contemplating a legal process would make this method of contesting a defamatory review difficult. Furthermore Mr Page did not attempt to make the review untraceable to him in this instance: he could have taken more measures to conceal his identity, which would have made it more difficult to track him down.

The integrity of online customer reviews in general has been often questioned. Fakes seem to abound. Some of them are defamatory, as in this case. If there are many fakes, then the reviews can mislead potential customers. Yet, some businesses pay for fake positive reviews, and others pay for negative reviews against their competitors, in seeking commercial advantages. There are also many people who are willing to write fake reviews – positive or negative – quite cheaply. If would-be customers have no confidence in the system of reviews on a particular site, then the reviews are useless, if not dangerous, and people will not rely on them. Fakes are not good for the consumer who is misled, the businesses that are misrepresented, or the platform which is mistrusted.

This case is atypical in that the claimants were determined enough to pursue the defamer in the courts and it was possible to identify the defamer with relative ease. It was expensive for the defendant and this judgement serves as a warning to others who may be tempted to write defamatory messages online. It is likely that there will be more defamation cases with regard to online reviews, as online reputation becomes more visible and important in the decision-making process of the potential customer.