Bill would protect consumers writing negative online reviews

Lawmakers are pushing legislation that would stop business owners from preventing customers' honest online reviews.

You may not notice when you book your hotel or buy a product online. But some businesses include so-called "non-disparagement" clauses in the fine print. That means if you had a bad experience and post a review about it, even if it's honest, they have the power to drop a hefty fine on you.

It's an issue that has the attention of lawmakers, including Florida's U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. On Wednesday, he was part of a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing pushing to allow Americans the freedom to post honest reviews without fear of retaliation.

"John got an e-mail from KlearGear demanding that my review be removed within 72 hours or we would be fined $3,500 for violating the non-disparagement clause in their terms of sale and use," said Jen Palmer of Hillsboro, Oregon, who testified at the hearing.

Palmer said a review she posted on in 2009 about a bad experience with got her husband John in big trouble three years later. John was the one who had placed the order, so the toy and gadget website went after him.

When the Palmers refused to pay the penalty, KlearGear reported the $3,500 to credit reporting agencies as an unpaid debt.

"For a year and a half, KlearGear's black mark on John's credit caused us constant anxiety, fear and humiliation when people would ask us, 'Who is KlearGear and why do you owe them $3,500?'" Palmer said.

An organization called Public Citizen later represented the Palmers in suing KlearGear, helping clear John's credit, and winning a default judgment against KlearGear.

At Wednesday's hearing, Nelson supported the Consumer Review Freedom Act which would ban those non-disparagement clauses.

"In a state like mine, Florida, that is so dependent on tourism, we want visitors to share their experiences. Businesses that do a good job should be rewarded with good comments," Nelson said. "Those who do not are punished by telling the truth."

Adam Medros, Senior Vice President for Global Product at the website TripAdvisor, also testified at Wednesday's hearing. He said TripAdvisor is now warning travelers before they book.

"TripAdvisor has taken the approach of posting a red text box on the business' listing warning travelers of this unscrupulous practice," Medros said. "This is an imperfect solution, and one which would be improved upon by passage of Chairman Thune's Consumer Review Freedom Act."

Larry Collier is the Director of Hotel Operations for H.I. Development, which works with the Barrymore Hotel in Tampa. He believes all feedback is good, even if it's bad.

"We believe what the customer experienced is really what happened," Collier said. "The more positive reviews you have on there, the less impactful the negative one can be, and if you go online and respond to that review and take care of the customer, it can really become a positive impact."

Dan Newman, who lives in St. Petersburg, has the Yelp app and he knows how to use it.

"It took 45 minutes to get a salad and the salad was just like a chunk of lettuce and chicken on the side," he recalled from one of his recent restaurant reviews.

Newman checks reviews before going out. He posts his own when things are "really good or really bad."

"I guess I am just looking out for people and their budget and money," Newman added.