Google ordered to hand over names of fake reviewers in Dutch court case

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Fake reviews have been an occasional and frustrating by-product on sites like Google, Yelp and Amazon for years. But a recent case in the Netherlands highlights how one company affected by them fought back. A nursery in Amsterdam has won a case against Google in a civil court in the city this month, in which Google was not only forced to take down several negative fake reviews that appeared on Google sites, but also disclose the details, such as IP addresses, of the people who posted the reviews in the first place.

It looks like this is a groundbreaking moment of sorts: The lawyer for the nursery, Paul Tjiam of Simmons & Simmons, believes this is the first time that the search giant has ever been forced by a court to reveal contact and registration details of fake reviewers.

Google so far has no comment on the case. “We’ve received the ruling and are reviewing it but nothing else to share at this time,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch in an email.

The nursery (whose name was withheld in the ruling) filed its suit against Google after it received harassing reviews for more than six months. The reviews, which were posted via Google+ and visible when you searched for the nursery on Google Maps, claimed among other things that the nursery was harming children.

According to Tjiam, the nursery had initially contacted Google directly to request the reviews be removed saying they were not authentic — providing proof that they were copy/pasted from other websites, as well as posted with profile pictures copied from other people.

But Google would not take them down, claiming that reviews posted on Google+ fall under freedom of speech and that reviews being negative or anonymous are not justification enough to take them down. So the nursery took Google to court.

After the judge in the case, CM Berkhout, determined that the reviews were indeed fake and damaging, he mandated Google take down the reviews anyway. It seems from the court documents that the requirement to provide details about the reviewers was made so that the nursery could confront the reviewers in a court of law, should it choose to do so, to dispute the reviews.

“The judge balanced the interests of privacy against the interest of reputation (of this nursery). However, it considers the interests of protecting the reputation more important than the interests of Google to the interest of privacy of the Google Reviewers,” Tjiam told TechCrunch.

As the “largely unsuccessful party,” Google also was ordered to pay some nominal fees in the case. These include €619 for the summons; €619 in court fees and €816 in attorney fees — about $1,700.

Wider privacy questions

While the case appears to be a landmark ruling — it’s the first time that Google has been required to provide contact details and IP addresses for Google reviewers — it also highlights the challenges for a search platform like Google when navigating questions of freedom of speech and more recent developments that touch on user privacy.

The ongoing “right to be forgotten” mandate in Europe, where Google and other search engines are removing links that people request to be removed if “inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant or excessive, and not in the public interest,” have proven to be tricky waters for the company amid its default position of making the world a more searchable place.

Asked if he feels that revealing IDs can set a dangerous precedent, Tjiam said the he believes that it’s the current process that is flawed. “Fake reviews is a huge problem on the internet. It cannot be stopped by only removing these fake reviews, that is a band-aid solution,” he said. “It is important that you will get to the source of the problem. Operators of review sites, such as Google Maps with its Google Reviews option, should take more responsibility for their own tools…. Again, this only goes insofar it relates to cases were the reviews are patently unlawful and damaging towards others and are written and posted by anonymous persons. For the record: this is of course different for people who are posting reviews based on own experience and facts.”

He also pointed out that Google didn’t manage to act even when the nursery went through the correct process to try to remove the bogus reviews.

“In this case, Google took no responsibility, even when it was confronted with the fact that its own policies were evidently violated. The Dutch court also rightfully indicated that Google did not comply by its own policy, as Google explicitly allowed Google Reviewers using pictures they took from the internet from other persons and thereby pretending they were someone else.” He said that one of the pictures of a supposedly Dutch parent of a nursery child was actually of an Americans who had passed away; her original picture was discovered by his legal team on findagrave.com.

“In my opinion, it was stunning that Google allowed this, as the practice of using someone else’s profile picture without consent is unlawful and infringing on portrait rights (not only in the EU, but also in the US!) and it only helps fake reviewers to hide behind a ‘trusted face.’ Hopefully, this decision will make Google rethink their own policies and the way they enforce their policies.”

In terms of what kind of a precedent this case will set, it’s yet to be seen how and if the position will be taken up in Europe and further afield. Tjiam notes that in the U.S., a direct action against Google ordering it to provide contact details of reviewers is legally impossible.

“As far as the Netherlands is concerned, this is big (and good) news for especially the smaller businesses who are being harassed via Google Reviews,” Tjiam told me in an email. “As with the ‘right to be forgotten,’ this decision will be used by smaller businesses to trace Google reviewers posting fake reviews,” he predicts.

“As regards the EU, there is no doubt that others will use this decision in their respective jurisdictions. In media and IP related matters, attorneys constantly refer to judgments that were rendered by other (mostly West) European courts.”

Asked about the wider implications outside of Europe, Tjiam notes that “The Netherlands and its court decisions are…often a front runner of what other courts will decide in the coming years.”

Of course, for most — perhaps all? — jurisdictions, it is “unthinkable” that Google would be ordered to provide IP addresses and contact details of Google reviewers, he notes. “However, the problem of fake reviews and the damage done by fake reviewers, especially in respect of small businesses, is getting more and more attention.”

Ultimately, what this case could do is shed more light on potential ways to moderate and remove illegitimate reviews in a more efficient way.

Google and other sites have been pinpointed in the past as a breeding ground for fake reviews, and in some cases Google has even backed research that aims to reduce the amount of review spam in the world. Others, like Amazon have taken legal action against reviewers to deter others from doing the same.

Updated with more comment from the nursery’s legal counsel. 

Featured Image: Bert Kaufmann/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE