Amazon goes after pay-per-(re)view practitioners

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Amazon—and here I should enter our usual disclaimer that Jeff Bezos, Amazon chief executive, also owns The Post—has filed an action in Washington state court against 1,114 unnamed John Does for posting fake positive reviews on Amazon and who allegedly have used an online marketplace—Fiverr.com—to offer and sell positive Amazon reviews for $5 a shot.

I wish it well with its suit. Over on Fortune.com, Jeff Roberts calls it a case of "killing an ant with a sledgehammer." I beg to differ. Customer rating/review is one of the great Internet-enabled innovations of the early 21st century, on any number of levels. It is a great Internet mystery—why consumers spend as much time as they do rating and ranking products and services—but spend time they do, and should you find yourself in the market for, say, a Brother TN450 toner cartridge, you will surely be pleased to discover that you have access to the opinions of more than 3,000 (!) prior purchasers, 3,000 people who have taken time out of their presumably busy days to rate, and to comment on, these cartridges. Amazing and bizarre, but there it is; it's as though you can convene a personal focus group of 3,000 and tap into their views on this product, and the aggregate value of all of this information (that is now routinely collected at virtually all consumer-oriented sites) is beyond computation.

But Gresham's law lurks out there, and bad information will drive out good information; the entire system will fall apart if we don't believe that the information is reliable and objective. And nothing makes information less reliable and objective than a $5 bill.

Interestingly, Amazon has sued only the (unnamed) individuals who allegedly posted the fake reviews, not the Web site that operates the marketplace. A good move—our old friend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which Amazon itself relies on to shield it from any liability for whatever its reviewers might say about the product/service, should shield the Web site operator from liability as well (unless it could somehow be said to have induced or otherwise helped to create the offending reviews).

But maybe some readers can illuminate me on one question: Amazon knows whether someone who wants to review the TN450 toner cartridge actually bought the cartridge—at least, whether he or she bought it from Amazon—and uses this information to mark certain reviewers as "Verified Purchasers." Why don't they just prohibit anyone who's not a "Verified Purchaser" from posting a review? There's a suggestion in the Amazon complaint that some of the defendants had managed to get themselves declared "Verified Purchasers" without purchasing anything—but I admit I don't quite understand how that might work (and/or why Amazon isn't just fixing that problem).

NEXT: 'Pulp Sonnets,' by Tony Barnstone

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