Are There Any Winners When Companies Sue Online Reviewers?
An Amazon customer who purchased a product from Mediabridge is the latest to face an alleged legal response from a company after publishing a negative review. While we are awaiting confirmation from Mediabridge, the Amazon reviewer has taken his case to reddit, and the community has responded in unified anger directed at the company.
Update: For a more detailed overview of the situation, including our interview with a Mediabridge representative, check out: “One Mistake: The Fall of Mediabridge.”
The situation began last September, when an Amazon user identified as “TD” published a review of the Mediabridge Medialink router, giving the product the lowest possible rating, one out of five. But TD didn’t provide only his personal experience with the router, his review also made several accusations which Mediabridge, allegedly acting via its attorneys, deemed libelous.
Specifically, TD wrote that the Medialink router, which carries a list price of $50, was a rebranded $20 router manufactured and sold by Chinese firm Tenda. He also claimed that Mediabridge was using fake or paid reviews to improve the reputation of its products on Amazon, stating:
I’m here to warn you: A lot of these reviews are fake…It’s very likely that they are paying for reviews. It’s unethical, but think about it: They only sell these routers on Amazon, so the whole success of their company depends on Amazon reviews.
This week, TD took to reddit, claiming that he had been contacted by a law firm representing Mediabridge. In a redacted letter dated May 5th, the law firm signaled its intent to take legal action against TD, claiming slander, defamation, product disparagement, fraud, and libel:
Mediabridge learned that you made and posted on Amazon.com, blatantly false, defamatory, libelous and slanderous statements about Mediabridge and its Medialink brand of Wireless Routers. Specifically, you publicly stated in writing that Mediabridge/Medialink has falsified (“faked”) reviews for its Medialink Wireless Router on the Amazon.com website. This is a lie which has no factual basis.
Further, you erroneously stated that the Medialink Wireless Router is identical to another router and that Mediabridge/Medialink only rebranded that same router. This too is false.
The law firm’s letter informs TD that he can avoid litigation by removing his Amazon review, ceasing any further defamatory and injurious conduct, agreeing to never purchase another Mediabridge product, and agreeing to never publicly comment online about the company again.
The response on reddit to TD’s plight was similar to that of other consumers faced with legal situations after posting online comments: overwhelmingly negative towards Mediabridge. But public response to the issue is only half of the equation. Can TD and others in similar situations be held responsible for their online reviews?
any victory on the part of Mediabridge will pale in comparison to the damage done to the company’s reputation
The core of the alleged issue between Mediabridge and TD is libel. While defamation laws can vary depending on the jurisdiction, libel is the defamation of a company or individual in written form. To prevail on a libel claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant made a published statement about the plaintiff that was false, injurious, and unprivileged. “Unprivileged” statements are those that fall outside of narrow circumstances in which the law has recognized that a person’s statements, even if otherwise libelous, are more important than the protection of a plaintiff’s rights. Examples include witnesses testifying in court or during depositions, and lawmakers acting in an official capacity.
While TekRevue does not dispense legal advice, TD’s statements were published by virtue of their public appearance at Amazon.com, were not privileged, and likely caused injury to Mediabridge’s reputation. But the question of their veracity is key.
Several of the nearly 1,600 five-star reviews for the Medialink router do indeed appear odd, as if written hastily by those without much experience with the product, but that neither proves nor disproves any claim. Of note, there are also many detailed five-star reviews from “Amazon Verified Purchasers” with a long history of reviewing other products. There is also no proof, other than a brief statement in an unrelated review, that the Medialink router is a rebranded Tenda product, although they do look quite similar.
But even if TD’s statements turn out to be true, the threat of litigation by a company against an individual is daunting. Except for very specific and relatively rare circumstances, the American legal system requires parties to pay their own legal expenses. That means that defendants like TD could face bankruptcy defending a civil claim, even if they eventually prevail. It’s a well known reality that companies use to their advantage, hoping that opposing parties will quickly settle rather than face protracted and costly litigation.
But is it worth it for Mediabridge, too? In the hours since TD’s reddit post, the company has learned firsthand the consequences of “The Streisand Effect,” the phenomenon whereby an attempt to remove or hide a piece of information results in the information’s broader publication, usually to levels that would have never been attained absent the effort to hide it.
Although TD has explicitly stated that he does not want others to take action against Mediabridge, many reddit readers, incensed by the company’s alleged actions, have taken to Amazon to write their own negative reviews, and to vote many of the five-star reviews as “unhelpful,” in an effort to suppress them. An example of one such review, from the user “G. Goodwin:”
The quality of this product is irrelevant, but I am sure it is terrible. Like Mediabridge, which is run by thugs and also terrible.
As it stands, of the 18 reviews featured on the router’s main Amazon page, all but 2 are one-star reviews, most published following the explosion of interest in TD’s reddit post.
For his part, TD tells TekRevue that he did not expect either reaction to his review: that of Mediabridge or those of the reddit community. But now that his situation has escalated, he is calling for Amazon to investigate the authenticity of the router’s five-star reviews, and take action against Mediabridge to ensure that customers can review products sold on the website without fear of lawsuits:
I’d like to stress that I have no vendetta against this company, and I never wanted to be in the spotlight. I simply provided some information about their product that a few dozen people found helpful, and then got hit with a threatening letter, and then everything blew up on reddit.
What I’d like to see happen is for Amazon to investigate the reviews of this company’s products, and obviously, to be able to know that I can write a review without fear of reprisal with frivolous threats of litigation.
We’ve reached out to Mediabridge, although the company has yet to respond in detail to our inquiry. We’ll update this article once we hear back. As for the alleged legal threats, it’s likely that any victory on the part of Mediabridge will pale in comparison to the damage done to the company’s reputation. Fair or not, this situation’s publicity may cost the company tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of potential customers. It’s worth wondering if the management at Mediabridge now wishes we could all just go back to The Way We Were.