Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Amazon Cracks Down!

From the Seattle Times:

"Amazon.com sued three websites it accuses of purveying fake reviews, demanding that they stop the practice. The suit alleges that the glowing product evaluations they provide deceive consumers and harm the sellers on Amazon’s site who don’t game the system.

The suit, filed Wednesday in King County Superior Court, accuses Jay Gentile of California and websites that operate as buyamazonreviews.com and buyazonreviews.com, among others, of trademark infringement, false advertising and violations of the Anticyber­squatting Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Consumer Protection Act."


This isn't exactly news. Amazon filed this suit a couple weeks ago, but I haven't had a chance to talk about it until now. Pretty much everyone knows these days that fake reviews are all over the internet. Online ratings services have caught people gaming the system numerous times and not long ago, a few writers were even busted posting fake reviews through "sock puppet" accounts. They weren't just promoting their own books with fake reviews; they were also slamming other books they considered "competition."  Talk about taking sleazy to a whole new level. Amazon cleaned up that mess by deleting thousands of reviews they considered suspect, no doubt removing quite a few legitimate ones in the process.

This time, they're taking a different tack. Amazon is going after the owners of several fake review websites. Apparently, these sites have explicitly offered to sell four and five star reviews, sometimes going so far as telling businesses to send an empty box to the "reviewer."

I don't know exactly what Amazon is trying to get out of this, but no doubt they will sue for a lot of money and try to make an example out of these people. Most of the articles I've read tend to focus on the above mentioned points, but what I find most intriguing about this case is something no one else seems to have mentioned. I'm talking about discovery. In case you don't know, that's what legal experts call the process of procuring evidence during a lawsuit. When Amazon sues, their lawyers will gain access to all of the files and records owned by these companies. And what do you suppose they'll find in those files?

Yep. They're going to find names, account numbers, email addresses and other identifying information of companies and individuals who have purchased these fake reviews. Interesting. I wonder what they'll do with all that information. I mean, obviously they're going to delete those fake reviews, but what then? A slap on the wrist for those people who abused the system? A fine? Lawsuits?

It seems likely that Amazon will send out warning letters notifying these sellers that they are in breach of the Terms of Service and could have their account deleted (if not worse). It will probably end there, unless Amazon continues to have a serious problem with this issue. But I wonder what Amazon will do with all that information. More specifically, I wonder what they'll do to writers. Because the discovery process might expose authors who've been buying fake reviews. What if their names are released? What if Amazon uses that information to further analyze their accounts, and learns they've been posting through sock-puppet accounts? In some cases, those writers may think they've protected themselves by anonymizing their I.P. addresses, but that's not necessarily the case, because even if they aren't caught in this lawsuit, they might get caught in the next one. Or, they might get caught when Amazon (or the U.S. Government) investigates the anonymizing service they used. Or, when Amazon starts taking individuals to court for their role in this. Discovery can be a nasty business because it shines a light on things that people will do when they think nobody's looking.

I'll admit, I'm a cynic. I've become a bit jaded in my old age. When I was a naive farm-boy from Montana, I made the mistake of judging the world based on my own values. Because I was generally good and honest , I assumed that deep down everyone else was, too. Over the years, I learned the hard way that this is not always the case. The truth is that there are a shocking number of people in this world who will do terrible things as long as they believe they won't get caught. They might do even worse things when they realize they're about to get caught.

The resolution could be simple. Amazon might sue these website owners, make examples of them, and then forget the whole thing. Or, they might not. We'll know pretty soon. Either way, Amazon has to do something because it has become public knowledge that their system is being exploited. Already, people are deciding that one-star and five-star reviews can't be trusted, if any can. If the public loses faith in Amazon's system, their business model will have a serious problem. Personally, I expect them to become more aggressive about this sort of thing, at least in the short term. After all, this is business.