Amazon and the Sisyphean Battle Against Fake Web Reviews

October 28, 2015 Updated: November 2, 2015
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In early October, Amazon slapped more than a thousand people with a lawsuit for writing fake reviews on its website. The lawsuit didn’t name the individuals, only their usernames on Fiverr.com, an online freelancing website where Amazon conducted its sting operation, posing as sellers looking to purchase fake reviews.

Amazon sued the reviewers for violating the Washington Consumer Protection Act as well as Amazon’s own Conditions of Use. 

The buying and selling of fake reviews, or followers and likes, through online stores and social media platforms has long plagued the Internet, and Fiverr isn’t the first website to facilitate shady online dealings en masse—Craigslist predates Fiverr’s existence by more than a decade—but Fiverr is the most successful and institutionalized incarnation of the idea.

Fiverr received $30 million in Series C funding last year, and its sleek user-interface, decked with ratings, reviews, and ranks for individual sellers and a streamlined ordering process, makes Craiglist, and even eBay, look like a garage-operation in comparison.

All freelancing services on Fiverr have a price floor of $5, the website’s namesake, and the company takes a 20 percent cut of each transaction. Fiverr’s front-page lists innocuous services like voice-overs, video editing, custom soundtracks, and cartoon avatars. But a quick search also brings up offers of fake Twitter and Instagram followers, Facebook likes and comments, and even negative SEO, where spammers flood links to a business competitor’s website from suspicious URLs—for example, those affiliated with payday loans service or child pornography—to bring down their Google search rank. One gig of this kind is titled I will beat Your Competitor Instantly for $5.

More than a week after Amazon’s lawsuit was filed, fake reviewing gigs are still remarkably easy to find on Fiverr, although many of the usernames listed in Amazon’s lawsuit appear to have been suspended, according to conversations on Fiverr’s forum.

When questioned about these types of offers, Fiverr replied via email that it “actively remove services that violate our terms of use, and respond promptly to any reports of inappropriate content.”

The main thrust of the lawsuit isn’t to hold the individuals accountable, but to scare sellers from offering fake reviews.

Many sellers on Fiverr would have little to fear for the simple reason that they live overseas where prosecution is difficult, if not downright impossible. Alexa estimates that only 13.5 percent of Fiverr’s visitors are from the United States, while 27 percent are from India and Pakistan. 

“[Amazon] could go a court in another other country … but the cost would be prohibitively expensive, probably thousands of dollars for each individual,” said Edward Cheng, a partner at Sherin and Lodgen LLP who specializes in Internet law.

The main thrust of the lawsuit isn’t to hold the individuals accountable, said Cheng, but to scare sellers from offering fake reviews in the first place and signal to Amazon’s customers that the company was serious about cracking down on fake reviews.

The tactic has worked, somewhat; some sellers who offer “everywhere reviews” explicitly state “no Amazon” in their gig description box; others now omit “Amazon” from a long list of websites they do reviews for despite still showing Amazon as featured in their service offering image. Nevertheless, it still only takes a few minutes to find someone offering fake Amazon reviews.

Fiverr itself doesn’t have too much of an incentive to eliminate abusive or illegal services on its website, apart from bad press, because it’s difficult to hold the website accountable for the behavior of its users.

“Fiverr doesn’t have a business relationship with Amazon, and a lawsuit between the two would get much messier, in part because it’s more of a general question of what duty of care does Fiverr have to any other entity out there,” Cheng said. Fiverr can say, “We’re just a marketplace, we don’t provide the services … and we don’t condone illegal services.”

In the suit, Amazon states that the Washington State Superior Court has jurisdiction over the defendants, although Amazon doesn’t know their names or locations, because they have all conducted business activities in the state.

Successful prosecution of producers of fake online reviews have succeeded only when the company itself offered to write the fake reviews, such as in Operation Clean Turf in 2013, when the New York Attorney General Office busted 19 companies and fined them $350,000 in total for selling fake reviews by going undercover posing as an owner of a Brooklyn yogurt shop.

It’s unlikely that fake reviews will disappear anytime soon.

A 2011 Harvard Business School (HBS) study found that a one-star increase in Yelp ratings could boost a restaurant’s revenue by as much as 9 percent. The deep influence of online reviews on a business’s bottom line is enticing enough that up to 30 percent of all online reviews could be fake, according to a 2014 HBS study.

In the absence of legislative action that expands the liability of digital marketplaces, it’s unlikely that fake reviews will disappear anytime soon.

Fake reviews might just be a necessary price we pay for having to live with the online freelance economy. Even if activists could get Congress to pay attention to this issue, it’s not at all clear that legislative micro-incisions—holding websites responsible for fake reviews while not overburdening them with so many responsibilities as to quash the digital freelance economy altogether—is even legally or politically possible. One would only have to look at the fiasco that was the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, which failed to pass despite the backing of deep-pocketed Hollywood lobbyists, to see that.