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Second bill to protect online reviews now before Congress

Unscrupulous companies have been using hard ball tactics, from lawsuits to fine print in service contracts, to keep customers from posting negative reviews on Yelp and other review sites.  In response, Congress is considering two bills designed to protect consumers who choose to share their bad experiences in online reviews.

To protect dissatisfied consumers from lawsuits filed by companies seeking to squash negative reviews, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and Trent Franks (R-AZ)  on Wednesday introduced The Securing Participation, Engagement and Knowledge Freedom by Reducing Egregious Efforts (SPEAK FREE) Act of 2015.

So common are these lawsuits that they have their own acronym: SLAPP suits—strategic lawsuit against public participation. The bill would create a special motion to dismiss such suits if the defendant could demonstrate that the speech at issue was about a public concern or official matter.  The parties suing could rebut the motion to dismiss if they can show their suits would likely succeed on the merits.

To foreclose on fine print restrictions on negative reviews, Representatives Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), and Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) last month introduced the Consumer Review Freedom Act.  This bill would declare non-disparagement clauses in consumer contracts as unenforceable and gives the Department of Justice and state attorneys general the authority to go after businesses that put such clauses in their contracts. Last year, the California legislature passed a similar bill making non-disparagement clauses illegal in that state.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation vice president Daniel Castro called the SPEAK FREE Act  “an important piece of legislation which will protect consumers from frivolous lawsuits intended to silence legit online speech, such as complaints about products or services.”