Legal fandango

By Adam Raphael, Editor

The public is rightly fed up with multi-national companies which use elaborate tax-avoidance measures to avoid paying British taxes. Foreign companies intent on evading British laws, despite conducting a lot of business in the UK, are in the same dubious league.

A case in point is TripAdvisor which has just blocked a small HIGHLANDS GUEST HOUSE from obtaining the names and addresses of two reviewers who left defamatory comments on TA’s website. Under British law, websites must disclose the details of reviewers when ordered to by a court. But in a hearing shortly before Christmas, the Court of Session in Edinburgh upheld TA’s claim that it was not bound by British law.

That means that the identity of the two reviewers who used the pseudonyms, ‘dreckit, Manchester, and edna B, London, will never be known. One of the appeal judges, Lady Paton, declared: ‘Nothing in the respondents’ terms and conditions suggests that the respondents have undertaken to be bound by the orders issued by a Scottish court.’ The moral of this story is never sign anything sent to you by TripAdvisor, and, in particular, don’t tick any box on its website. If you do, you will discover that you have signed away your legal rights.

The outcome of this court case is a disaster for Martin and Jacqui Clark, the owners of TIGH NA CHEO guesthouse (pictured above) in Kinlocheven. Their business has been unfairly trashed yet they have no remedy. They are now facing legal costs running into tens of thousands of pounds, a burden already so heavy that they cannot afford an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Who will help them? Sadly there is no sign that the British Hospitality Association is ready to do so. The Clarks wrote to the industry body which represents hotels and guesthouses before beginning their legal action, but received no answer. They also wrote to their local MP, Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber), but all they got was a reply saying that he was a believer in free speech.

This case has little to do with free speech; rather it is about a tiny business which has been crushed by a large American corporation whose business practices do not bear scrutiny. After a seven-month investigation, the Italian Competition Authority has just imposed a €500,000 fine on TripAdvisor for failing to prevent bogus reviews appearing on its website.

The Italian regulator said that TA should stop claiming that reviews on its website were ‘authentic and genuine’. Central to this 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 actually even stayed at the hotels they were criticising. TA, which is appealing against this judgment, claims that its algorithmic defences are a guard against bogus reviews. But, as has been shown over and over again, they are not.

What are the British authorities doing? The answer is nothing. Three years ago, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that TA’s website could not claim orimply that all the reviews that appeared on its website were from ‘honest, realor trusted’ reviewers. TA promptly dropped its slogan: ‘Reviews you can trust’, replaced it with ‘Reviews from our community’ and that was it. It got away scot free.

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 have actually stayed at the hotel they are reviewing. President Obama recently described the internet as ‘the wild west’. It is high time that it was brought under control.