(CBS News) – A man in Italy has been jailed and fined for trying to sell his good opinion.
The man, whose crime was to sell fake TripAdvisor reviews, will be required to pay a fine of 8,000 euros (about $9,300) and will be jailed for nine months, the company said.
It’s the first time a person has been sent to jail for fake reviews, said TripAdvisor. The company, which was a civil party to the case, called the decision “a landmark ruling for the Internet.”
The man, who was not named, ran a company called PromoSalento in the town of Lecce, in the southern tip of Italy. PromoSalento advertised packages of fake reviews to local businesses. TripAdvisor first spotted the business in 2015, the company said in a blog post, and then identified and blocked more than a thousand attempts to submit reviews to TripAdvisor’s site. Businesses that had paid for fake reviews were penalized by lowering their popularity ranking, the company said.
The court in Lecce found that writing fake reviews under an assumed identity was a crime under Italian law.
A 2005 European law also prohibits falsely representing oneself as a consumer.
Online reviews can make or break a business, in particular for pricier purchases. So it’s no surprise there is a brisk trade in boosting online rankings and that businesses can go to extreme lengths to influence their online reputations, including fining guests for negative reviews. (The U.S. Congress decided last year that it is illegal to ban honest reviews.)
Still, as many as 16 percent of online reviews are fake, according to research by the European Parliament. Major consumer websites, including Amazon, also suffer from having a large number of “unnatural” reviews.
While consumers are often unsure whether online reviews are accurate, we also put a great deal of trust in them. When it comes to consumer safety and holding companies accountable, many Americans says online reviews are more effective than government oversight, according to a Pew study.