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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Call for Fed Law Protecting tripadvisor (and Other) Reviewers from Corporate Cyber Bullies

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Stating that a hotel owner response to a sincere (and tame) negative tripadvisor (TA) review created real risks of being sued, having cops haul me off to jail in 'cuffs, and effectively facing a divorce is not an exaggeration. It also prompted this diversion from posting reviews of DVD and Blu-ray releases. One scary aspect of all this, is that I hardly am alone.

Before sharing enough details to convey a sense of this torment without being specific enough to face a situation in which I must use the catchphrase don't tase me Bro, I want to share a simple solution to business owners aggressively coercing amateur travel and restaurant writers into deleting negative reviews. This is a case in which the phrase "there oughta be a law" directly applies.

To use yet another expression, either Congress should man up and pass a law addressing this issue or Barack Obama should use his oft-utilized executive action power to stop this cyber bullying. Making such a law clean and simple (as well as pork-free) is equally important.

Such legislation should prohibit the owner of any business or a representative of said owner from acting in any manner to coerce or otherwise intimidate anyone who has posted an online review of that establishment. The scope of this protection should include a prohibition against an owner-posted response to a review including information that reasonably is interpreted as being embarrassing to the reviewer.

Regarding remedies, the law should provide for a monetary fine that does not break the bank but is large enough to discourage an owner from violating the law. It should also provide for the owner to pay the legal fees and court costs in any owner-initiated legal proceeding in which the reviewer prevails.

Getting down to the well-documented ugly details, my partner and I wanted to get away to celebrate a special occasion during the summer of 2015 and found a good deal for a hotel in a city on our radar. Further, the TA reviews of the hotel overall were positive.

The shortcomings at the hotel truly are irrelevant but did prompt a negative TA review and to give the property one chit. This (long-deleted) review also noted that the hotel advertised itself as being small and quaint but that my impression was that it was a conference hotel.

An executive with the hotel owner called me soon after TA published my review. This man immediately went on the attack and especially took umbrage regarding my describing the facility as a conference hotel.

The executive made it very clear that he would post a response assertively challenging my allegations if I did not remove my post. He further involved my partner in the matter despite my stating that I (a mentally competent "grown-ass man") was acting alone regarding the review and did not see the need to drag anyone else in the mess.

Subsequent emails from the executive after I did not remove the review stated a desire that he hoped that he would not have to post his response, included instructions for removing a TA review, and used a review of mine of another hotel to challenge my sincere characterization of his property as a conference hotel. (I ain't makin' this stuff up, Folks.)

All of this both intimidated me into deleting the review and lying to TA regarding the owner not coercing me into doing so. My concern included the cost and aggravation of a groundless lawsuit by the hotel company.

Things became even more bizarre roughly two weeks later. My partner and I decided at the spur of the moment to have lunch at a favorite restaurant, which both of us have highly rated on TA. After lunch, we decided even more spur of the moment to go to a nearby store.

On arriving at the store, we initially declined to get a shopping cart. Changing our minds roughly five minutes later, we went to the front of the store where I recognized the hotel executive from his picture in his employee profile, a highly distinctive characteristic, and his aggressive behavior that I observed.

I whispered my observation to my partner but did not approach or otherwise interact at all with the executive. Further, my partner and I immediately went to a different section of the store than the executive.

A general TA survey regarding issues with that site triggered a recent series of events that included my contacting someone at the hotel company regarding the bullying a year ago. This contact mentioned the PURELY RANDOM observation of the executive as proof of his aggressive intimidation.

Rather than discuss the matter, the company sent both my partner and me a very hostile letter that knowingly distorted facts to characterize me as a lunatic, asserted that I was stalking their executive based on the chance observation nearly a year ago, and made statements that strongly indicated an intent both to sue me and to inform the police of the alleged threat that I posed to the executive.

My partner understandably was upset and embarrassed to be dragged into a matter that only involved me and that centered around events that occurred roughly a year ago. The company ignored the aspect of the embarrassment and alleged that the reservation being in the name of my partner justified their action.

All this lead to several horribly tense days on the literal homefront despite the underlying TA review being very valid and the company being the villain in all this.

Needless to say, my partner and I both dropped the matter. We also have cancelled our TA memberships despite my partner having a large volume of well-regarded reviews of domestic and European businesses on the site and I not being so far behind. Further, the world-at-large will not hear of recent spectacular finds from our travels.

For their part, TA does what it can to protect reviewers. The sad truth is that effectively preventing a company from bullying a unsatisfied customer into silence requires the aforementioned law.

Folks with thoughts on this subject or who have experienced similar backlash are encouraged to either email or to connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.