The U.S. Senate this week gave unanimous consent to H.R. 5111, the Consumer Review Fairness Act, legislation that would protect reputational information online. Having previously passed the House in September, the bill now moves to President Barack Obama’s desk.

Reputational information is essential to functioning online markets. Every day, countless Americans use consumer review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Zenefits to share their experiences and opinions on the businesses and services upon which they rely. These reviews have become instrumental in markets as diverse as restaurants, hotels, pet shops and even physicians.

Such rating systems have made big cities feel like small towns by helping consumers confidently seek out retailers through online word-of-mouth. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of customers rely on these online reviews by their peers before making a purchase.

Unfortunately some unscrupulous vendors have tried to silence dissatisfied customers by burying nondisparagement clauses in terms of service agreements or claiming a copyright in information shared about a given business. The CRFA strengthens free-speech protections by prohibiting businesses from using certain clauses in their contracts to deter honest feedback from consumers. When signed into law, the bill will render void any contract provision either that prohibits customers from writing, speaking or otherwise communicating honest reviews or that imposes a penalty on those who do.

In order to avoid unintended consequences, the legislation wouldn’t apply to nonform contracts between employers and employees. These might include impeding a vendor’s legitimate grounds for removing disparaging content or removing reviews that are unlawful, false, misleading or confidential.

Given the bill’s swift passage, members also should consider action on H.R. 2304, the Speak Free Act, introduced by Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. That measure—the subject of a hearing by the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice earlier this year—would strengthen consumer protections against “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”  R Street joined with a broad coalition of groups—from industry groups like the Consumer Technology Association to nonprofit advocacy groups like TechFreedom, Public Knowledge—to encourage Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to move the bill through his panel and to a vote on the House floor.

Image by Joseph Sohm

Featured Publications