U.K. to investigate Amazon and Google over failure to remove fake product reviews

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If found to be true, the tech companies could be forced to change how they deal with fake reviews

British regulators are examining whether Amazon and Google have crossed the line and breached consumer protection laws by failing to protect shoppers and users from fake product reviews listed on their sites.

The U.K. Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said that it’s been investigating the situation since 2020. While Amazon and Google wound up as the two firms in the agency’s crosshairs, CMA said it had actually assessed several platforms’ internal systems and processes for identifying and dealing with fake reviews.

“Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations,” said Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s Chief Executive. “Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake 5-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence, while law-abiding businesses lose out.”

The investigation is another shot across the bow of Big Tech as both U.S. and European regulators continue to call those companies on the carpet for antitrust and anticompetitive behavior. If investigators find fire where they see smoke, it could mean massive fines. It may also force tech companies to change how they’re doing business.

What investigators want to know

Investigators are intent on finding out whether Google and Amazon have done enough in four key areas:

Detecting fake and misleading reviews or suspicious patterns of behavior. As an example, CMA cited a situation where the same people reviewed the same range of products or businesses at similar times to each other, but without any logical connection between those products or businesses. 

Marking incentive-based reviews. A review should note whether the reviewer has received a payment or other incentive -- like a bonus gift -- to write a positive review.

Investigating and removing fake and misleading reviews promptly. It might be a herculean effort to remove years of fake reviews, but the CMA wants the companies to at least get in front of the problem now and monitor the situation aggressively going forward.

Taking action against reviewers and businesses behind fake reviews. Another proactive measure that the CMA is asking Google and Amazon to make is imposing sufficient sanctions on reviewers or businesses to discourage them and others from posting fake or misleading reviews.

Not effectively stopping fake reviews

While Amazon may claim it’s already doing what the CMA is asking, the agency said it hasn’t been effective at combating fake reviews or stopping sellers from manipulating shoppers.

“The CMA is also concerned that Amazon’s systems have been failing adequately to prevent and deter some sellers from manipulating product listings – for example, by co-opting positive reviews from other products,” the agency said.

While it may appear to be a foregone conclusion that CMA is accusing Amazon and Google of breaking the law, the CMA says it’s not -- this is purely an investigation.

However, if the investigation determines that either of the two companies has broken consumer protection law, then an enforcement action could be on the horizon. Punitive actions might include the companies making commitments to change the way they deal with fake reviews or, if worse comes to worst, the CMA said it would consider court action. 

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