Having warned consumers: “Don’t buy into fake online endorsements” last year, the Competition Bureau sent a strong message to the media and marketing industry against astroturfing yesterday.  The Bureau announced that it has entered into a consent agreement with Bell Canada addressing employee-generated reviews and ratings of Bell apps on the iTunes App Store and the Google Play Store.  While Bell reportedly moved quickly to have the reviews and ratings taken down, the Competition Bureau evidently considered that the damage was already done:

“these reviews and ratings created the general impression that they were made by independent and impartial consumers and temporarily affected the overall star rating for the apps.”

Bell has agreed to pay an administrative monetary penalty of $1.25 million and has committed to enhance its corporate compliance program.  The company also proposes to host a workshop to promote “Canadians’ trust in the digital economy”, including online review integrity.

The Canadian Competition Act contains criminal and civil prohibitions against materially false or misleading representations.  The general impression conveyed by the the review, rating, tweet, post or other representation is a key element of determining whether it is misleading.

As part of its education, outreach and enforcement programs, the Bureau recently devoted its first edition of The Deceptive Marketing Practices Digest to online advertising, with a focus on online reviews.  The Bureau made a point of noting that “astroturfing is a problem that crosses borders” and highlighting its “excellent working relationship” with its international partners, including the US Federal Trade Commission.   In yesterday’s announcement, the Bureau invited consumers who believe that they have been misled by fake online reviews to call the Bureau’s Information Centre or to file a complaint on its website.

The recent activity and statements around online reviews make it very timely to revisit (or develop) internal compliance policies.  These can include examples of acceptable and unacceptable practices for reviews and ratings, endorsements, disclaimers, and special promotions such as sponsorships and contests.