Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Faking It

As online shopping catches on, there is an increasing trend of fake reviews and misleading information. This is a violation of consumer rights and the government has now unveiled a framework to curb it.

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The central government has unveiled a framework to curb deceptive and fake reviews on e-commerce platforms. The guidelines came into force on November 25.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs said in a statement: “The standard is expected to benefit all stakeholders in the e-commerce ecosystem, i.e. consumers, e-commerce platforms, sellers, etc. It will help usher in confidence among consumers to purchase goods online and help them take better purchase decisions.” The framework was released by Consumer Affairs Secretary Rohit Kumar Singh at a public event which was also attended by other senior officials of the department and the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

The guidelines will be applicable to all online platforms that publish reviews and will initially be voluntary for e-commerce platforms. Singh said that the rules will be made mandatory if violations continue. He said that the department wanted all e-commerce entities to adopt the framework as early as possible and get certified by BIS. However, the government has not made it mandatory for platforms to follow the guidelines at the moment. “If they are not doing it and if they are indulging in a practice which can then be termed as an unfair trading practice, then under the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act that deals with unfair trading practice or a consumer court can take penal action,” he noted.

The guidelines are an outcome of a committee that the consumer affairs department constituted in June. The committee included various stakeholders, including e-commerce companies, industry associations, consumer organisations, etc. All stakeholders agreed that the issue deserved to be monitored closely and appropriate framework governing the fake reviews may be developed to address the issue for protection of consumer interest.

“We believe feedback mechanisms such as reviews are essential for consumer interest. We welcome the steps being taken by the government to create necessary standards and are obliged to be a part of the constituted committee,” said Jaskiran Bedi, lead of public policy at Zomato, in a statement. Singh said Tata Sons, Amazon, Flipkart, Reliance Retail, Zepto, Blinkit, Google, Meta, Swiggy, Zomato and Meesho were part of the discussions and looking to self-regulate over fake reviews.

Global bodies, including UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Federal Trade Commission in the US, are working toward limiting misleading reviews online. Nonetheless, fake reviews have continued to emerge on platforms such as e-commerce websites worldwide.

The Department of Consumer Affairs has created a standard titled “IS 19000:2022” that will be managed by the BIS. Under the guidelines, platforms will be required to set up review administrators to moderate reviews using automated tools or manually to filter out biases and restrict fraudulent reviews. The reviews should also include the publishing date and star rating, the framework said. Alongside, the BIS will also develop an assessment scheme within 15 days to assess the compliance of the norms.

The new standards prescribe responsibilities for authors and administrators of reviews on online platforms. E-commerce platforms are mandated to develop a code of practice and necessary terms and conditions to curb fake reviews and address allied concerns around accessibility and privacy. Review administrators are also bound to safeguard personal information and train staff to curb fake reviews on the respective platforms. On the other hand, authors of review will have to provide contact information for verification purposes to check their traceability and genuineness.

Without the tangibility aspect on commerce websites, many users still rely on user reviews to make their purchase decision. In many instances, sellers on these platforms have artificially worked to inflate the reviews to spur sales. In many cases, it has also emerged that players indulged in paid publishing and negative reviews against their competitors to offset their sales. 

As e-commerce involves a virtual shopping experience without any opportunity to physically view or examine the product, consumers heavily rely on reviews posted on e-commerce platforms to see the opinion and experience of users who have already purchased the goods or service.

Fake reviews and misleading information is a violation of consumer rights under the Right to Information Act, 2019. Violation of the standards by any entity may be considered an unfair trade practice or violation of consumer rights and a consumer may submit such grievances to the National Consumer Helpline, Consumer Fora or the Central Consumer Protection Authority.

The trend of online shopping is increasing continuously. In this sense, fake reviews have a significant impact on consumer rights. The ministry had reviewed 223 major websites. It was found that 55% of the websites violated the rules of buying and selling set by the European Union.

—By Abhilash Singh and India Legal Bureau

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