We all have learned to take for granted and rely on consumer reviews before buying products, or making a hotel or dinner reservation. This fundamental consumer right is now under attack. 

Two years ago, an average consumer, Jen Palmer, ordered some desk ornaments and a keychain for less than $20 from the online retailer Kleargear. But Kleargear never delivered and the products never arrived. In response, Palmer posted a negative review of Kleargear on an online review site. The company’s response? They sent Palmer and her husband a bill for $3,500. Their crime? Posting critical comments about Kleargear, which conveniently for Kleargear, apparently violated a non-disparagement clause they had inconspicuously linked to on the company’s website. When the Palmers refused to pay, Kleargear sent the matter to a collection agency, resulting in serious harm to the Palmers’ credit rating. 

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Cases such as these risk depriving consumers of a powerful tool for finding the best products and services, and avoiding the worst. The United States has a deep tradition of sharing information to help fellow members of the public; settlers traveling the Oregon Trail left many guideposts, markers and even reviews along their way. Scrawled on rocks, scraps of paper, leather and even animal skulls, pioneers warned one another about potential contamination of water, notified followers of trail hazards and let travelers that followed know about upcoming oases. 

Americans still like to share, telling their friends and neighbors about their experiences with products and services to hold businesses accountable, and now they share online. Yelp, TripAdvisor, Angie’s List and dozens of other consumer review sites have made their names -- and businesses -- harnessing the opinions of consumers in online forums, with the mission of guiding potential consumers of restaurants, doctor’s offices and dry cleaners, and advising buyers of TVs, travel accommodations and more.  

It’s working. According to a recent study, nearly 70 percent of consumers take into account online reviews before making a purchase. Travel agents are oftentimes a skipped step in 21st century America; one simply needs to go online and read about other users’ experiences to decide on a restaurant or hotel. New parents can now cut their search time down substantially by reading detailed reviews of pediatricians in their area. From doctors to cleaning crews, coffee shops to hairdressers, there is no shortage of opportunities for people to hear, or convey, opinions on American businesses. 

But these expressions of free speech enabled by technology have also sparked some disturbing behavior from businesses trying to limit this right. Some companies are burying non-negotiable, anti-disparagement clauses in their terms of service, threatening their customers with lawsuits in an attempt to stop them from sharing their honest opinions online. These little noticed clauses stifle consumers’ free speech and make it easier for bad businesses to get away with sub-par services. 

Thankfully, Congress is taking an important step to protect consumers’ right to free speech with the Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2015 (S. 2044). This bipartisan effort, introduced by Sens. Thune (R-S.D.), Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Moran (R-Kan.), would nullify any of these form contract terms that allow businesses to slap consumers with large bills and lawsuits for sharing their honest opinions. 

The protection of free speech, both offline and online, must continue to be a top priority of the U.S. government. We at Yelp applaud the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee for their dedication to this issue and look forward to a long future of helping people make choices based on the opinions and experiences of their peers.

Crenshaw is director of Public Policy at Yelp.