New House bill would stop companies from punishing you for negative online reviews

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Illustration via Max Fleishman (Licensed)

This seems like a no-brainer.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday night announced a bill that would prevent companies from punishing people who leave negative reviews online.

The Consumer Review Fairness Act would outlaw terms-of-service clauses that prohibit negative reviews or punish people who leave them. It would immediately nullify any such clauses that are active at the time of its enactment. The Federal Trade Commission would be tasked with enforcing the ban, violations of which would be deemed unfair practices under its founding statute.

State attorneys general and consumer-protection officials would also be allowed to sue offending companies on behalf of their residents.

The legislation is a response to so-called "non-disparagement clauses" in companies' terms of service, which have drawn consumer groups' ire in recent years.

In February, a pet-sitting service in Dallas, Texas, sued a couple for $6,700 after they left a negative review on its Yelp page. A hotel in Hudson, New York, came under fire in mid-2014 for a provision in its guest policy that said it would fine customers $500 for leaving negative reviews online. And a gadget and apparel website famously fined two customers $3,500 for a negative review in 2013, leading to a federal lawsuit that ended with the court forcing the site to pay the customers $305,750 in damages.

The House committee's bill isn't the first to surface in this congressional session. South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced a similar bill last September. That same month, California's governor signed the first state law banning non-disparagement clauses.

In addition to negative product or service reviews, non-disparagement clauses have been used to bar people from speaking ill of their former employers. Federal courts have grown increasingly skeptical of those clauses, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 began studying whether they violate free-speech rights protected under the Civil Rights Act.

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