E-Commerce

E-commerce: must businesses tolerate bad online reviews?

A business’ reputation can improve greatly through online reviews. But the consequences of negatives reviews can also be severe. In certain circumstances, online businesses can protect themselves from bad reviews.

E-commerce: must businesses tolerate bad online reviews? © arahan-Fotolia

E-commerce: must businesses tolerate bad online reviews? © arahan-Fotolia

Bad online reviews

Whether or not a business can remove bad reviews or take any further legal action against negative online reviews depends on the content of the review.

According to a recent German district court judgment, if reviews are published in the form of a score, businesses must tolerate them. The judgment is not yet legally binding.

The facts

The case concerned a general practitioner who received an average score of 4.4 on a review website (the scale being 1 to 6 with six being the worst score). The score was supplemented by a text.

The GP requested from the website host that a number of the individual scores which made up the average score be deleted including: ‘treatment’ (5), ‘explanation and information’ (5), ‘practice facilities and furnishing’ (5) and ‘telephone availability’ (5). He asserted that the scores presented untrue information and were therefore defamatory. He also doubted that the review was posted by one of his patients.

The host provider deleted the accompanying text but did not remove the bad scores. As a result, the doctor sued the host provider claiming for their removal.

No infringement of personality rights

The District Court in Kiel took the view that a review score is not an assertion of fact but an expression of opinion which is protected under the right to free speech. The court concluded that the score did not infringe the GP’s personality rights and did not amount to defamation.

Derogatory statements

The court clarified that the position is different if online reviews contain derogatory statements, designed only malign someone. However, the court found no indications of this here.

Conclusion

An appeal has since been lodged and it remains to be seen how the appeal court will handle the case.

Under current case law, doctors and other businesses with websites must usually tolerate negative online reviews. However, where an online review contains untrue or derogatory statements, businesses are permitted to take steps to have it deleted. The first step would be to approach the operator of the review website.

Defamation cases are usually decided on a case-by-case basis. It is therefore advisable to seek legal advice and to conduct a thorough analysis of the relevant content before taking any further action.

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Kilian Kost joined WILDE BEUGER SOLMECKE as a lawyer in 2009. He specialises in internet law and competition law. In 2013 he became an accredited intellectual property lawyer.

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