Online reviews have long presented a sticky situation for fair-minded Americans.
Where does your First Amendment right to complain about threadbare linens end, and where does a hotelier's right to protect himself from griping assh*les begin?
Public sentiment has lately been on the side of those put-upon hoteliers, restaurateurs and other small business owners besieged and benighted by trolls, armchair critics and the ranks of never-satisfied consumers.
Of course, those business owners have their own tools. Some have encouraged fans and friends to deluge their establishments in one-star reviews — perhaps the only way to "opt out" of Yelp's reviewing system, which critics have said is unfair and biased against those who decline to advertise on the site. More litigious owners, meanwhile, have resorted to lawsuits, like the owners of a pet-sitting company who sued the author of a one-star review. Still others have begun presenting guests with contracts that forbid negative reviews — and it's this last bit that finally moved Congress to act.
The Consumer Review Fairness Act, a new bill passed by the House of Representatives and expected to move to the President's desk for his signature, would protect consumers from situations similar to one that saw a U.S. traveler simply billed $3,000 by a hotel for airing his grievances online.
The hotel's position: it's in our T&Cs. Congress's position: First Amendment.
Thanks to earlier legislation, the review sites in question hold little to no liability for the opinions expressed on them; that burden falls to the consumer. The Consumer Review Fairness Act won't protect them from bed bugs, and it won't protect them if their grievances are made up (libel laws are still in effect). But at the very least, it will provide (rightful) legal protection in the event you leave a deserved one-star review for a grumpy hotel owner with a pest problem.