It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that fake reviews run rampant on Amazon. It’s an unfortunate tactic which disreputable sellers have stooped to countless times. And they can be so blatantly fake as to border on the absurd. And while they’re more often than not obvious to any consumer’s eye, they still constitute deceptive advertising as defined by the FTC.
Now, one overseas legislative body is also calling Amazon to task for review manipulation.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the primary competition and consumer oversight regulator in the UK, announced on June 25th the launch of a formal probe into whether or not both Amazon and Google have sufficiently protected consumers against the threat of fake reviews. The probe comes following an investigation in May of last year into the trading and selling of fraudulent reviews on social media—most notable on Facebook and Instagram, the latter of which recently saw counterfeiters using their accounts to peddle wares, resulting in a federal lawsuit on behalf of Amazon.
“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 in a press statement regarding the official probe. “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 into Google and Amazon isn’t the first time the CMA has launched an official probe into deliberately misleading testimonials online. As early as 2019, both Facebook and eBay were subject to the CMA’s allegations of enabling a fake review marketplace, resulting in the removal of some 188 Facebook groups and the permanent banning of 140 eBay sellers.
The CMA’s latest probe comes less than two weeks after Amazon issued an official statement detailing their efforts to combat review manipulation, resulting in the deletion of over 200 million suspected fake reviews; many of them possibly originating from China, where a bustling marketplace for fraudulent reviews continues to thrive. The UK consumer watchdog group Which? also uncovered evidence in February 2021 of a global cottage industry devoted to the sale of positive reviews, including one German-based company which boasted of over 62,000 reviewers.
The sale of incentivized reviews has been expressly banned on Amazon since 2016, despite a lawsuit Amazon filed the previous year against one California entity operating three different monetized review websites. The CMA’s report questions whether both Google and Amazon have taken adequate steps to detect and prevent patterns of suspicious behavior as well as promptly remove suspected fake reviews, imposing sanctions on suspected bad actors.
The investigation occurred just three days after the EU launched an official antitrust probe as to whether or not Google has favored their own services in online display ad bids. The company had previously been fined $268 Million by the French Competition Authority for similarly exploiting its market share in online advertising previously in June.
While the CMA hasn’t yet determined whether either entity has broken consumer protection law yet, they have indicated it could potentially escalate into legal action if the investigation did not result in a commitment to impose further sanctions on suspected offenders.
“It’s important that these tech platforms take responsibility and we stand ready to take action if we find that they are not doing enough,” said Coscelli in the press statement.
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