Where the freedom of speech ends and infringement of law begins?
Nowadays we cannot imagine life without the Internet and modern technologies as they make our everyday functioning, both in private and professional life, easier. But almost unlimited access to the Internet and lack of embarrassment in expressing opinions as an anonymous participant of the global network also have a second, darker side.
Reviews and ratings on various types of websites spread with the speed of a lightening notwithstanding the fact whether they are real or fake or whether they are written by persons who actually used the services of the entrepreneur they reviewed or whether they were inspired by the competition.
Pervasive rankings and illusory anonymity
While observing the influence of opinions expressed on the Internet on the reputation of enterprises and related to this problems of a legal nature, we are increasingly aware that the dystopian visions of the future straight from the series “Black mirror” are not as detached from reality as we would think just a few years ago.
It is enough to mention the Social Credit System introduced in China which evaluates Chinese citizens. Compliance with the law, punctual meeting of their financial obligations or cleaning up after dogs allows to earn positive points and make life easier on many levels. On the other hand, infringement of the law, stowaway or delay in payment for energy may lead to a situation in which we will not be able to get a loan in a Chinese bank or get a dream job.
Just as in the “Black mirror” series, a bad rating may result in refusal to sell an airline ticket. The system evaluates both individuals and companies. Discount offers or privileged treatment of persons with high scores sound tempting but monitoring different activities and their automatic assessment may destroy someone’s life and lead to a tragedy.
Shouldn’t these black visions make us treat all types of online rankings with a greater distance?
Online reviews can provide valuable comments, warn or praise, encourage you to use the services of some facilities but also effectively deter clients. Reading online reviews has become our habit. We check on the Internet what reviews the hotel has before choosing a place for a holiday trip (e.g. booking.com, tripadvisor.com), how many stars internet users awarded a restaurant before deciding where to have dinner (e.g. zomato.com) or which doctor was ranked the best by other patients before we decide to make an appointment (znanylekarz.pl, dobrylekarz.pl).
Almost every Internet user uses Google Search or Google Maps. Maps are not only used for location, but contain a number of information about visited places, tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels and local businesses, including the average rating of Internet users (calculated on the basis of awarded stars) with their comments. Google Maps, basing on its own unspecified criteria, decides also which reviews are the ‘most relevant’, by placing them at the top of the list according to their arbitrary choice. Algorithms also decide when the reviews will be removed and that affects the overall rating of a business.
Expressing opinions about places or companies is within the boundaries of constitutional freedom of speech. However, it is very easy, especially in a place as anonymous as the Internet, to violate the freedom of opinion and to enter, often violently, into the sphere of rights and freedoms of other people or companies.
We don’t always realise that a large part of reviews posted on different websites or on Google Maps are reviews written by hired marketing agencies (in the case of positive opinions) or are inspired by competitors (negative reviews, defamatory comments, hate). In many cases, you can see at first glance which reviews are true and which are part of the unfair competition. Is it possible to take seriously a review written by an anonymous user who does not use his name and who has just created an account to write that review and then disappear?
More and more often reviews are written by the so-called “Local guides” who “cooperate” with Google on developing Google Maps in exchange for the opportunity to climb the next levels of the program and use different benefits offered by Google. The more reviews written, the more points in the program. And if places or companies whose services the “Local guide” never used, but only passed nearby are reviewed by him? Who would care…
But how much evil can these false reviews cause we only find out when we experience their effects “on our own skin”. One of the persons who recently learned about that personally, was a paediatrician from Tychy, as someone tried to destroy his reputation on ‘anti-vaccine’ forums, until he took legal steps with the help of the Prosecution.
The fight to remove negative reviews from the Internet is not easy and the function of ‘reporting violations’ offered by Google or other online platforms is not very effective. This does not mean that we are helpless in this situation. Taking legal steps requires more effort but it is quite often the only way to resolve the issue of false reviews or hate on the Internet and to recover the reputation questioned by other internet users.