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Tech platforms urged to make it easier for small businesses to have ‘damaging’ online fake reviews removed | Australia news

Tech platforms are being urged to make it easier for fake reviews to be removed amid fears they are harming small businesses online.

Small business ombudsman Bruce Billson told a parliament committee that the online harms experienced by small businesses through fake reviews must be considered as part of the government’s social media inquiry.

“Our office is particularly concerned by the posting of negative reviews that are not founded in real customer experiences (‘fake reviews’),” he said in a submission in the last week of December 2021. “These reviews damage business reputations and cause significant distress to staff and business owners,” he said.

“Our office has assisted more than 30 businesses dealing with fake reviews in recent years.”

Guardian Australia has previously reported how little recourse businesses can have when disgruntled customers, and even competitors, leave negative reviews on businesses on Google search and maps. Increasingly, businesses are launching defamation suits against Google in order to unmask anonymous reviewers to get them to remove the review.

Last year, the county court of Victoria ordered a woman who left multiple negative Google reviews about Kew periodontist Dr Allison Dean to pay $170,000 in damages plus costs, for what the judge said was a “vendetta” against the specialist.

In 2020, Google and Optus handed over information that revealed the identity of an anonymous negative reviewer on Melbourne dentist Dr Matthew Kabbabe’s page, after he took legal action. The case was subsequently settled.

Billson said fake reviews are often given prominence on online platforms, and could contribute to a loss of sales over an extended period of time.

“Further, as a small business owner’s identity is often intrinsically linked to their business, fake reviews contribute to mental health strains,” he said.

Citing a Google move last year to remove fake one-star reviews for the Robinhood app during the peak of the GameStop share incident one year ago, Billson said such protection should also be offered to small businesses.

“We recommend that digital platforms build out tools that prevent fake reviews as well as create a more accessible and transparent review system,” he said.

“This should include giving small businesses more transparency on the evidence they need to provide a digital platform to have a fake review reviewed and removed,” he said.

In the 2019 digital platforms report, released by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, it was recommended the government develop an external dispute resolutions scheme for issues with tech companies such as Google and Facebook. The government agreed to the recommendation, and flagged a trial of the scheme in 2020. However, to date there has been no pilot scheme.

Billson said in his submission his office would be happy to provide insight “into the most effective management of small business disputes”.

The social media inquiry was set up late last year to review “the range of online harms that may be faced by Australians on social media and other online platforms, including harmful content or harmful conduct”, the impact algorithms have, identity verification and age verification policies, online safety for children, and data collection.

Palmer United Party MP Craig Kelly, who was permanently banned from Facebook and Instagram in April last year over posts promoting hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and questioning the effectiveness of masks, is one of the members of the committee.

The committee held two hearings just before Christmas, and submissions to the inquiry close on Wednesday.

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