The Wild West–TripAdvisor’s playground

TripAdvisor, Twitter, Facebook, and Google dominate the world’s communications with little accountability as to how they conduct their business. When President Obama described the internet as ‘the wild west’, it was an admission that Governments around the world are far behind the curve in controlling these internet giants. It is time that they were brought to heel.

In the wake of last month’s terrorist attack on Parliament, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, has pointed out that it is ‘unacceptable’ that terrorists should be able to send encrypted messages which cannot be accessed by the security services. In her sights was What’s App, the hugely successful internet app owned by Facebook, which is used by more than one billion people in 180 countries lured in part by its promise of unbreakable encryption. Google, owner of YouTube, has also been forced into a hasty retreat by big household name companies fed up that their advertisements should be appearing alongside terrorist propaganda videos.

As for TripAdvisor, it continues to publish malicious and collusive reviews on its website with only derisory checks as to whether they are from genuine travellers. Three years ago, after a seven-month investigation by the Italian Competition Authority, TripAdvisor was fined €500,000 for publishing bogus reviews. The Italian regulator said that TA should stop claiming that reviews on its website were ‘authentic and genuine’. Central to its ruling was the regulator’s decision that TA had failed to prevent false reviews appearing on its website, and that it did not do enough to try to find out whether those who left negative reviews had even stayed at the hotels they were criticising. This decision was eventually over-ruled by an Italian court which ruled that ‘TripAdvisor never asserted that all the opinions on its website were real.’

What these internet giants have in common is their claim that they are merely platforms with no responsibility for the opinions they publish. So far as Twitter and Facebook are concerned, there is some force in this argument. They are essentially echo chambers, not conventional publishers. But they should not try and dodge their responsibility for monitoring what is being published on their platforms and to censor racist, terrorist and other unacceptable material. All this costs money, but they have plenty of that. Nor do we have to worry too much about Google. It is being brought to heel by the loss of  advertising caused by its negligent policy of publish and be damned.  What’s App is more troubling. There is clearly a balance to be struck between security and privacy. But with the growing threat of international terrorism, it is unacceptable that the authorities are unable, even when armed with a court order, to read encrypted communications. The vast majority of those who use encryption has no need for it. The minority who do should accept that there must be limits to privacy in the interest of saving innocent lives.

That leaves TripAdvisor. Parliament has yet to distinguish between the need to uphold free speech and those who publish anonymous vitriolic comments on the web about businesses or people who for good or bad reason they dislike. Until it does, travel review websites remain beyond the reach of the law, and are part of the internet’s ethical vacuum. Reviewers should not be able to post contributions defamatory or otherwise on travel review websites without any check whether they are from real people and whether they have actually stayed at the hotel they are reviewing. TripAdvisor could do a much better job than it currently does. It would cost time and money, but TA has plenty of both.