Have you ever called out a terrible restaurant or bed bug-infested hotel by writing a negative Yelp review? Soon, your ability to make your dissatisfaction known online may be a legal right.
The Consumer Review Freedom Act would make it illegal for businesses to fine customers for negative online reviews, reports the National Journal. Introduced by California Rep. Eric Swalwell, the legislation deems businesses' attempts to force dissatisfied customers to remain silent online a violation of free speech.
California signed similar legislation into law last week. California businesses that violate the so-called "Yelp bill" could face up to $10,000 in fines.
"We urge other states around the country to follow the example that California has set and adopt similar laws to clarify that non-disparagement clauses in consumer contracts are void and unenforceable," Yelp's public policy officer Laurent Crenshaw wrote in a blog last week. "These types of laws are good public policy and will help to protect Yelp users and consumers worldwide."
As consumers place increasing importance on online reviews, some businesses have struggled to find the right way to deal with negative reviews. A few negative reviews can deeply injure a brand's reputation, a hit that businesses want to avoid at all costs. But banning negative reviews is far from the best way to avoid getting a bad reputation.
Even if fines are legal, nothing gets customers angrier than telling them what they can and cannot say about a business. In August, when word got out that Union Street Guest House in Hudson, N.Y., had a policy of fining guests for bad reviews, the hotel's online rating immediately plunged. In a few hours, hundreds of negative reviews appeared on Yelp, driving the hotel's rating down to one star.
Everyone should have the right to call out bad businesses in online reviews. But, when vigilante activists are quick to enforce free speech online, does Yelp really need the legal protection?