Amazon Google are to be investigated by the UK competition watchdog over concerns the tech companies have not done enough to tackle the widespread problem of fake reviews on their websites.
The Competition Markets Authority, which began looking at the issue of fake reviews on major platforms two years ago, will now consider whether Amazon Google have broken consumer law by not taking sufficient action to protect shoppers from fake reviews.
Sellers use fake misleading reviews to improve their star ratings, which can in turn affect how prominently their company, products, are displayed when consumers shop online.
“Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews then spending their money based on those recommendations,” said Andrea Coscelli, the chief executive of the CMA. “Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake five-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence while law-abiding businesses lose out.”
The CMA said its work so far raised “specific concerns” that the two Silicon Valley companies were not doing enough to detect fake misleading reviews or suspicious patterns of behaviour investigate those reviews, were failing to impose adequate sanctions on reviewers or businesses who break the rules on posts – even the serial offenders.
It was also concerned that Amazon’s systems have been failing to “adequately protect deter” some sellers from manipulating product listings – for example, by co-opting positive reviews from other products.
If the CMA’s investigation finds Amazon Google have broken consumer law it could take enforcement action. This could include securing formal commitments from Amazon Google to crack down on the problem, or pursuing court action if they fail to do so.
In 2019, the CMA told Facebook, Instagram eBay to crack down on fake reviews, having found “troubling evidence” of a thriving marketplace for misleading online reviews. However, the CMA was forced to intervene again when a follow-up investigation found Facebook had failed to act.
This year a Which? investigation found companies claiming to be able to guarantee “Amazon’s Choice” status on products – an algorithmically assigned badge of quality that can push products to the top of search results – within two weeks, others claiming to have armies of reviewers numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
“We have repeatedly exposed fake reviews on websites including Amazon Google, so this investigation is a positive step,” said Rocio Concha, the director of policy advocacy at Which?. “The CMA must now move swiftly towards establishing whether these companies have broken the law. This should prompt Amazon Google to finally take the necessary steps to protect users from the growing tide of fake reviews on their platforms and, if they fail to do so, the regulator must be prepared to take strong enforcement action.”
Amazon has said it removed more than 200m suspected fake reviews globally before they were seen by customers in 2020 alone but finds the fight against the fake review “factories” difficult to combat.
“To help earn the trust of customers, we devote significant resources to preventing fake or incentivised reviews from appearing in our store,” a spokesman for Amazon said. “We work hard to ensure that reviews accurately reflect the experience that customers have had with a product. We will continue to assist the CMA with its inquiries we note its confirmation that no findings have been made against our business. We are relentless in protecting our store will take action to stop fake reviews regardless of the size or location of those who attempt this abuse.”
A spokesperson for Google said the company has strict policies around fake reviews has disabled user accounts over breaches.
“Our strict policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, when we find policy violations, we take action — from removing abusive content to disabling user accounts,” a spokesperson said. “We look forward to continuing our work with the CMA to share more on how our industry-leading technology review teams work to help users find relevant useful information on Google.’’
Concha from Which? added that the government must also give online platforms “greater legal responsibility for tackling fake fraudulent content on their sites – including fake misleading review activity”.