Astroturfing: New York cracks down on fake internet reviews

Astroturfing it is the practice of hiring internet reviewers to post fake positive reviews of your business on the internet using different usernames and IP addresses.

This practice has become increasingly prevalent because positive internet reviews are capable of increasing a company’s revenues by upwards of 10%.

Where expert reviews once drove revenue, purchaser behavior is increasingly driven by the experiences of fellow consumers (or people we think are fellow consumers).  Taken in the aggregate, consumer reviews can be much more predictive than, say, the review of one expert.  For example, I find reviews on www.redbox.com to be remarkably accurate.  As a result, I tend to rent those highly-rated movies and I also continue to use Redbox.  Without these reviews I might spend my money on different movies or different rental channels.  That’s the power that consumer reviews have.

To leverage this power, some companies have begun hiring professional online reviewers to post positive reviews under fake names using different IP addresses to avoid getting detected by filters that companies like Yelp use to weed out fake reviews.  One Craigslist ad solicited people to post reviews on Yelp, Google Maps, and CitySearch, “without getting flagged.”  These fake posters may be offshore in the Phillippines, Bangladesh, or Eastern Europe, or they may be employees of an SEO (search engine optimization) company right here in the US.

Whereas SEO companies once relied on building a better website, increasing the use of key terms, and generally trying to second-guess the search-engine algorithms to increase visitor traffic, increasingly such companies have begun offering “reputation management” as an add-on service.  The client-business benefits from having positive online reviews that increases revenue, the SEO benefits by earning extra income from the business, and the fake poster benefits by earning  $1 to $10 per post.  It’s no wonder that the practice is expanding.

The problem, however, is that fake posts dilute credibility and mislead consumers. 

Ok, so maybe the damages aren’t that bad, right?  You go for that tandori you read is so awesome and it turns out to be dry and flavorless.  Definitely a let-down, but should that be actionable?  Well here’s a bigger problem.  Fake reviews can provide a major revenue boost to companies, and arguably, that is money consumers might be spending at other competing businesses.  So the damage occurs not only by misleading consumers, but also by giving an unfair advantage to businesses who are willing to violate the law.

Although increasingly commonplace, astroturfing in fact constitutes a false and deceptive business practice under many states’ laws.  Recently, New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman announced an agreement reached with 19 companies to stop their astroturfing practices.  Several offenders were assessed penalties ranging from $2,500 to just under $100,000.  The legal basis for Schneiderman’s initiative is New York Executive Law § 63(12) and New York General Business Law §§ 349 and 350.  Under these laws, astroturfing is considered a fraudulent business practice and  false advertising punishable by injunction and fine.

Here in Georgia, the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, O.C.G.A. § 10-1-372, prohibits a business from representing that goods or services have sponsorship that they do not have.

The bottom line?  It might seem that everyone is doing it, but the question may be, for how long?  Most states have laws similar to those in New York and Georgia prohibiting false and deceptive business practices.  So you need to ask yourself… just because everyone else is doing it, should I?  If you have questions about competition and your growing business, contact the business attorneys at Briskin, Cross & Sanford.

Advertisements

Google’s terms more complex than Beowulf

I have commented before on Mark Anderson‘s common-sense observations and wry tone. Here, true to form, he notes the functional unreadability for many users of Google’s Terms and Conditions and suggests that they should be written more like Fifty Shades of Grey (well… that’s not quite what he says).

Of course, we know (possibly from guilty experience) that most readers don’t read the terms and conditions (“T&C”) or terms of service (“TOS”) before clicking the “download” or “accept” button anyway, although it is not clear whether we don’t read them because they are difficult or whether they have evolved to become difficult and obtuse because most people don’t bother to read them and therefore few sales are lost because the terms are inaccessible or unacceptably harsh.

One software vendor that offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who read the fine print in its license agreement and hid the offer in plain site in its terms of service did not receive a response claiming the prize for four months and more than three thousand downloads.  Another inserted a term providing that if a user did not register the downloaded evaluation copy of its software properly, “a leather-winged demon of the night will tear itself, shrieking blood and fury, from the endless caverns of the nether world, hurl itself into the darkness with a thirst for blood on its slavering fangs and search the very threads of time for the throbbing of your heartbeat.

For contract attorneys and IP lawyers drafting terms and conditions, end-user license agreements (“EULA”), and click-wrap agreements in general, especially those designed for use by ordinary online consumers, the most difficult part of the task is often to provide both maximum legal coverage and maximum clarity at the same time.

This should never be an excuse, of course, for not striving for that elusive blend of clarity and coverage. A clear contract will always be more enforceable, and the best business practice is rarely to “let the buyer beware” and blame the reader for not getting assistance if any of the terms he or she is invited to “click here to accept” are difficult to understand.

Of course another way to get readers to actually pay attention to the terms of service, is to have a celebrity perform a dramatic rendition of them.  Mr. Anderson has previously drawn our attention to the hilarious reading of Apple’s EULA by Richard Dryfus (click here to listen to the Dryfus reading, and be sure to click to listen to the “Effective until” segment).

If you are struggling with your own (or someone else’s) T&C, TOS, EULA or Click-Wrap Agreement–and you don’t have ready access to a celebrity like Richard Dryfus to read it for you–the contract and intellectual property attorneys at Briskin, Cross and Sanford will be more than happy to assist.

IP Draughts

beowulfIP Draughts spluttered over his porridge this morning, while reading an item in his newspaper.  According to researchers at the University of Nottingham, if you want to understand Google’s internet user agreement you need a higher level of literacy than you need to understand Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon poem that was written about 1000 years ago.  Non-firewalled news report here.

The research team has developed some software that will rate the readability of website text. Called Literatin, it has been developed to work best with Google Chrome.  There is an amusing irony here: you have to accept the Google terms before you can use the software!  It seems that there is also a version that uses Firefox.  See here to download either version.  IP Draughts wonders whether it uses any of the same methodology as the Bla-Bla Meter, which we reported on here.

Ms Ewa Luger (@ew_luger)…

View original post 187 more words

Pinterest wins $7.2M in legal battle with cybersquatter

Chinese cybersquatter Qian Jin, in one of the most brazen cybersquatting cases to come to court in months if not years, has been ordered by the US District Court for the Northern District of California to pay Pinterest $7.2 million in damages and legal fees and turn over to Pinterest the domains (e.g. pintesrest.com, pinterests.com, etc.) he had set up to divert inadvertent searchers to his own slew of money-making websites.  Hat tip to Dara Kerr of CNET: Pinterest wins $7.2M in legal battle with cybersquatter | Internet & Media – CNET News.

Alleging Cyberpiracy, Trademark Infringement, Dilution, and a series of California state law claims, the complaint charges that Pinterest was not Jin’s only target: the serial cybersquatter registered “domains that appear to infringe upon the marks of popular companies, especially online companies, across the globe, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Etsy, Eventbrite, Foursquare, Hotmail, Hulu, Lotus, Spotify, Blekko, Dwolla, Volunia, Skillshare, Jumio, Scribd, Zazzle, and Zynga.” (read the full complaint here).

Not only did Qian Jin register domains that were clearly intended to cause confusion with and dilute a wide variety of famous brands, he even tried to register Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, Quora, and Pinterest  as trademarks in China… did he think that this would stop other Chinese cyberpirates from moving in on his territory?

Action in the case was suspended for some time while Pinterest achieved service on Jin in China, which it eventually managed to do in January, 2013. Qian Jin (perhaps not surprisingly) failed to file an answer in the case, and the Court finally awarded a default judgment to Pinterest, pulling the plug on Jin’s operation for good.

While the Court’s order may help Pinterest gain control of the infringing domains, Pinterest’s chances of collecting a single Yuan of the $7.2 million judgment from Qian Jin are probably as remote as, well, China.  For our purposes, however, the judgment is not just a shot across the bows of would-be domain squatters, cyberpirates, and trademark infringers across the globe but a salutary warning to small-time hucksters and wannabe cyberpirates trying to shake down local businesses in exactly the same way.

15 of the most expensive domains of all time – The Next Web

A number of my clients in recent months have bought or sold internet real estate in sought-after neighborhoods of the world wide web, where value is determined, just as in the real world, by location, location, location!  I am often asked, “what do you think I should sell it for,” or “do you think I am paying too much for this domain?”  The first step is often to explore the available trademark rights associated with a domain purchase–there is not much point in purchasing a catchy domain for a lot of cash if you can’t use it to brand your product or service.

Here are fifteen of the most desirable www addresses, which recently sold for prices ranging from $5m to $35m.

15 of the most expensive domains of all time – The Next Web.

Hat tip to Ben Woods of TNW