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The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has opened formal enforcement proceedings against tech giants Amazon and Google relating to possible breaches of consumer protection law, amid concerns that both firms have failed to adequately tackle the problem of fake reviews on their websites.
This comes following an initial investigation dating back to May 2020, which assessed a number of internal systems and processes for identifying and dealing with fake reviews. The CMA will now begin the process of gathering more information from both firms to determine whether or not the law has been broken.
In particular, said the CMA, it wants to establish whether Amazon and Google are taking sufficient measures to protect users from fake and misleading reviews, focusing on how they detect, investigate and respond to them, and sanction the businesses or individuals who engage in the practice.
It will explore a number of scenarios, such as where a single user has reviewed an unlikely range of products or services; whether businesses are gaming the system by, for example, combining positive reviews for one product with the reviews for another; and how Amazon and Google handle reviews where the reviewer has received payment or other incentives to review.
Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive, said: “Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations. Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake five-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence, while law-abiding businesses lose out.
“We are investigating concerns that Amazon and Google have not been doing enough to prevent or remove fake reviews to protect customers and honest businesses. It’s important that these tech platforms take responsibility and we stand ready to take action if we find that they are not doing enough,” said Coscelli.
Commenting on the CMA’s announcement, Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: “We have repeatedly exposed fake reviews on websites including Amazon and Google, so this investigation is a positive step. The CMA must now move swiftly towards establishing whether these companies have broken the law.
“This should prompt Amazon and Google to finally take the necessary steps to protect users from the growing tide of fake reviews on their platforms and, if they fail to do so, the regulator must be prepared to take strong enforcement action.
“The government must also give online platforms greater legal responsibility for tackling fake and fraudulent content on their sites – including fake and misleading review activity,” said Concha.
The probe also builds on action taken last year against eBay, Facebook and Instagram over the “trading” of fake reviews, which resulted in a number of groups being removed and individuals banned. It forms part of a broader programme of work that the CMA is undertaking, including establishing a new regulatory regime for digital markets.
An Amazon spokesperson said: “To help earn the trust of customers, we devote significant resources to preventing fake or incentivised reviews from appearing in our store. We work hard to ensure that reviews accurately reflect the experience that customers have had with a product.
“We will continue to assist the CMA with its enquiries and we note its confirmation that no findings have been made against our business. We are relentless in protecting our store and will take action to stop fake reviews regardless of the size or location of those who attempt this abuse.”
Amazon said its systems were able to block more than 200 million fake reviews during the course of 2020 before they were seen by a single customer. More details of how it works to create a “trustworthy reviews experience” can be found here.
While fake reviews may appear a niche issue compared to the other problems faced by online platforms – such as cracking down on hate speech, abuse and harassment – they have the potential to cause serious harm to bona fide businesses and shoppers, as they can result in changed star ratings and determine how prominently products or services are displayed and promoted, changing the shopping experience and leave consumers at risk of buying, fake or otherwise substandard or unsafe products, or being scammed out of their money.
Earlier in 2021, a security-illiterate scammer “accidentally” exposed the extent of the issue when they left 13 million data records relating to online reviews available online for anybody to see in an open ElasticSearch database.
The data dump was 7GB in size, and related to individuals around the world who had engaged in a scheme whereby they bought a product from an Amazon vendor, left a five-star review for it, and then sent the vendor their PayPal details to obtain a refund. By actioning the refund process through PayPal, the fraudsters were able to avoid being spotted by Amazon’s moderators.
Google has been approached for comment but had not responded at the time of publication.
Read more about fake reviews
- TripAdvisor and Amazon have had to learn how to manage online reviews in ways that other companies can learn from.
- More than 13 million records relating to an organised fake review scam have been found on an unsecured ElasticSearch database, implicating hundreds of thousands of people in unethical behaviour.