UGC Tripping

September 20, 2010

I am on holiday and thus very well qualified to comment on recent reports that TripAdvisor is under attack for its unfair practices and for sheltering behind the protection of the US Communications Decency Act. In fact I am especially well qualified as I am sitting in a hotel room, booked after research on TripAdvisor (among others). This post is about user generated content and, very guardedly, about libel.

I think UGC is great – up to a point.

I have long complained about the lack of input from SCL members on all manner of issues. I rarely get an answer when raising questions about the magazine or web site. I wish I had more UGC. So I fantasise when visiting sites like Trip Advisor – like a teenage boy viewing a Cheryl Cole video. But, rather like the teenager, I am not sure I would know what to do with it if I had it. We do after all deliberately limit the comment on the site by making the facility to comment available only to SCL members and I am sure that all SCL members suspect that, even if they post a comment on a blog or article anonymously, I can find out who they are (they are dead right about that) and that limits comment. (In any case, SCL members are universally recognised as wonderfully kind people and have no wish to cause offence.) So the chances of me being faced with negative comment on the web site are slim. I do get negative comment – hard to believe I know – but most negative comment is sent by e-mail and is very much of the constructive criticism genre. If I was faced with online comment of the kind that equates to the hotel critiques on Trip Advisor (say ‘poorly researched’, ‘devoid of intellectual content’, ‘trivialises an important issue’), I am not sure how I would respond. I think I might have to go with the hotel that responded to negative comment with ‘what can you expect at these prices?’ and then resort to drink. But I do think I would be very upset if an online review of blog sites collated all negative comment and told the world never to bother reading anything I had written. I might even start thinking in terms of libel.

The facility to post user generated comment has attracted those who have the wrong motives for some time. There are a number of well documented cases of abuse where the poster of positive comment has been the proprietor of the business to which the comment relates and a few instances where it has been established that the poster is a rival. Add to that the fact that you are more likely to post a comment when dissatisfied than when vaguely content and we all need a certain amount of scepticism when reviewing UGC. I add other filters when viewing hotel sites – I know ratings are warped in favour of those having great wi-fi and I ignore all comments about staff rudeness if they appear to come from persons of certain nationalities.

The claim by KwikChex (a reputation management site) against TripAdvisor is based, in part at least, on an e-mail sent out by TripAdvisor headed ‘Don’t Go There. Hotel Horror Stories’ which then linked to user generated content that gave very negative reviews to a number of hotels. KwikChex appear to be recruiting hoteliers to join a class action (at £35 a head) and aim to get TripAdvisor to remove reviews that are more than two years old, that advise the use of another rival hotel or that just contain insults (such as ‘Crap‘). KwikChex say, by way of exemplifying the untrustworthiness of the reviews, that they checked 100 that mentioned food poisoning and not one corresponded to a local health authority record, but I am not sure that convinces me that I should stay at any hotel having a one word review of the kind mentioned above.

My own view, and it is very guarded and based on no research (I’m on holiday!) is that any e-mail of the kind that it is alleged was sent out by TripAdvisor would be entirely unprotected under UK libel laws, unless the truth of the statements to which a link was supplied could be proved. It is entirely different from just hosting comment on a web site. I am not so exhausted by sightseeing or sufficiently befuddled by vino tinto to offer a view on the US position. I am at a bit of a loss to understand why a class action, presumably one brought in the USA, is considered to be a good idea. Any such action will get caught up in policy arguments of the kind that the US courts love and the UK courts loathe. Presumably there are jurisdictional and enforcement issues but I’d be surprised if TripAdvisor has no UK revenue stream even if it has no UK presence so satisfying a judgment should be possible. Gaining a judgment should be enough to embarrass in any event.

I would of course be delighted to hear views on the issue from SCL members. One word insults are discouraged though.