User-review websites face action from hotels over libel

Just when you thought the Internet was all about the freedom of self-expression, it turns out websites that allow negative reviews to be posted could face legal action.

Though the law applies to any site, it is user-review giant TripAdvisor that is not surprisingly the focus of potential legal action.

Kate Macmillan, a partner with London-based law firm Taylor Macmillan, which specialises in libel cases, told Travolution that several hotel groups have approached her firm in recent months to represent them in a potential libel case against TripAdvisor, following the alleged publication of negative reviews on the site.

No formal case has yet been filed against TripAdvisor, though precedents do exist for such a claim.

In 2000, Demon Internet had to pay out £15,000 for failing to remove defamatory remarks against an individual from its site.

David Engel, a libel lawyer with Addleshaw and Goddard who was recently retained by TripAdvisor to advise it on potential libel suits it may face, says UK law is “murky” when it comes to distinguishing between statements that are personal opinions and not subject to libel laws and those statements that are.

Another challenge with bringing a case against TripAdvisor is that it is a US-registered company and the US does not recognise UK libel laws.

California is at least one US state where websites cannot be sued over libellous third-party content.

A spokesman for TripAdvisor confirmed the company had retained a UK lawyer to advise it on any potential libel claims.

TripAdvisor maintains that it is careful to allow suppliers to respond to negative reviews and will also remove comments that it deems are intentionally meant to damage a company’s reputation.

“Most parties try to avoid taking legal action and work out their disputes among themselves,” says Macmillan.

Not only can the legal process be time-consuming, the cost of bringing a libel case can reach into the millions, while the potential award is minimal by comparison.

“The highest amount of damages awarded in a libel case was £200,000 and that was for gross defamation,” says Macmillan.

A practical and less costly solution for most parties is to approach the Internet Service Provider of the site, which will generally remove the information in question.

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