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Have you ever left a comment on an online review platform? For many people, leaving and reading comments is an essential part of navigating the modern marketplace. But negative comments have sometimes led to legal trouble. On occasion, some people have actually been fined or sued by businesses after leaving negative reviews, but a bill signed into law by President Obama on Thursday is meant to put an end to that. As NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports.
ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: This story starts with some online Christmas shopping gone very wrong when in the winter of 2008, a guy named John Palmer of Clayton, Utah, decided to buy his wife, Jen, a couple of holiday tchotchkes from an online retailer called KlearGear.
JEN PALMER: Just some little desk toys, key chains, little nerdy things like that.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But Jen Palmer says the gifts never arrived, and after a testy back and forth with the company's customer service, she did what many thousands of consumers do every month. She posted about her experience on an online business review site.
PALMER: I posted the review, and then we forgot about it.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But four years later, the Palmers received an email from the company...
PALMER: Saying that we had violated their non-disparagement clause and that we were now subject to a $3,500 fine if we didn't take the review down.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: A non-disparagement clause. That's a caveat in the fine print of a company's terms of service restricting or barring customers from publicly reviewing their experience with the company. The Palmers told KlearGear they wouldn't be taking down the comment or paying the fine.
PALMER: All we did was tell the truth, and you don't get to fine us for this.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But a few months later, the couple found out their credit had taken a big hit. KlearGear had passed the fine onto a collection agency as an unpaid bill. The Palmers went to the press, and they eventually found legal help. Paul Levy is a lawyer with Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group that agreed to represent the Palmers in court.
PAUL LEVY: The purpose of a non-disparagement clause is to have a hammer with which to hit consumers who haven't said anything false, but you can make them take it down or you can seek damages, you can seek attorney fees, what might you.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Levy says these so-called gag clauses can limit truthful criticism and deprive consumers of valuable information.
LEVY: They put a thumb on the scale of the marketplace of ideas.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: After a lengthy legal back and forth, the Palmers won a default judgment in federal court and their credit was restored. We tried to reach KlearGear for comment, but phone calls weren't answered and a link on the website to contact the owners about non-disparagement issues was broken. The Palmer's case helped to bring the issue publicity. Online review platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor soon joined the effort to help pass federal legislation.
And this week, the president signed the Consumer Review Fairness Act into law. It prohibits companies from restricting their customers' right to review. Interestingly, there hasn't been much pushback. The rare bipartisan bill passed unanimously in the Senate last month, and business associations we reached out to said the issue simply wasn't on their agenda.
JOE SULLIVAN: It wasn't necessarily a solution looking for a problem, but it was something where it wasn't a widespread practice.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Joe Sullivan is an Atlanta lawyer who advises businesses on how to deal with negative customer reviews. He says the lack of public opposition is likely because most businesses haven't ever considered using gag clauses in this way. He says he's heard muted pushback from some in the business community, but that for most businesses fighting to restrict customer reviews wouldn't be worth the bad publicity.
He also points out that businesses will still have the ability to combat false reviews through defamation suits. As for Jen Palmer, she's just happy to have moved on from her legal fiasco. She never got her desktop tchotchkes, but, she says, this Christmas she got something even better.
PALMER: I definitely call it the best Christmas present of all to make sure that nobody else has to go through this.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Still, she says, it never hurts to read the fine print. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in an earlier Web version, we mistakenly refer to Layton, Utah, as Clayton, Utah.]
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