A few days ago, the Italian Antitrust Authority imposed an administrative fine of € 500,000 on the US company TripAdvisor LLC—owner of the famous tourist reviews portal www.tripadvisor.it—and its Italian subsidiary TripAdvisor Italy Srl, for the “dissemination of deceptive information on the sources of the posted reviews, with regard to the unsuitability of the tools and procedures adopted by the trader to contrast false reviews”.
The Authority acted on a complaint filed by a consumers’ association, by Federalberghi (the Italian Union of Hoteliers) and by some individual operators in the tourism sector.
TripAdvisor was accused of not acting appropriately to prevent the publication of reviews (whether positive or negative) written by users who, in fact, had never used the services reviewed; in these circumstances, the repeated use by the Company of advertising claims purporting the truthfulness and authenticity of the reviews allegedly involved a serious risk of unfairly influencing consumers’ economic choices.
TripAdvisor objected to these complaints claiming, among other things, to have adopted means of control over the authenticity of the users’ reviews, one prior to their publication and another one after: the so-called manual control, which takes place following notices by users, visitors or owners of the relevant facilities. Both affect reviews considered to be “false” (“when there is a clear set of suspicious activities in relation to a particular facility“) or “suspicious” (“when there is no direct evidence about the existence of a fraud, but the review shows characters such as to generate a sufficient risk to justify (on the basis of anti-fraud filters) its removal“). In addition, the company alleged that the obligation to register as a TripAdvisor user in order to post reviews constituted in itself a deterrent for anyone intending to review any facility in the database “for fun” or with fraudulent purposes.
However, the findings of the Authority during the preliminary inquiry showed that: the creation of a user account was extremely easy, being also possible through the use of a proxy server and a temporary email address (without any verification); the representatives of registered facilities could only respond to reviews with informative replies, but they could not directly moderate them; if a review, recognised as false, could not be associated with any facility, it was not possible to impose penalties on the author; the people in charge of the “manual control”, in fact, only numbered five for the entire European market (only one of whom knew Italian); there were some accounts related to tourist facilities long out of business, still presenting reviews, clearly false, posted after they had shut down; every review, regardless of its relevance and authenticity, directly affected the ranking of tourist facilities offered by the site.
As this was a commercial activity carried out on the Internet, the opinion of the Italian Communications Authority had to be sought. The latter supported the unfairness of the commercial practice at issue, maintaining that TripAdvisor was and is “able to influence consumers’ choices in an evident and tangible way” and that such behaviour is substantially deceptive, because the website, defining itself as “the largest travellers’ community” and ensuring with similar claims the authenticity of the reviews contained on it, encourages consumers to consider it an absolutely impartial and reliable service.
In conclusion, the Antitrust Authority found that TripAdvisor had put unfair commercial practices in place, encouraging consumers to entrust their own economic determinations to a comparison site, based on allegedly truthful, genuine and authentic reviews of tourist facilities, while the verification tools were, in fact, ineffective. On this basis, the Antitrust imposed on TripAdvisor the above mentioned administrative fine and ordered it to report back within 90 days about the measures taken “in order to remove the deceptive nature of the information disseminated by the site, which emphasised the authenticity and reliability of consumer reviews“.