Google turned over user’s info

Re­view

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - A

that many of the cus­tomer ser­vice re­views you find posted about this mer­chant are le­git­i­mate. Caveat Emp­tor.”

Gary Kulp, owner and pres­i­dent of Austin Gut­ter King, says that’s just not true — and that ev­ery­thing on the site came from “le­git­i­mate former cus­tomers.”

“A law­suit against a com­pet­ing firm is a costly and neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, so it’s very much a last re­sort,” Kulp said. “But in the any­thing­goes world of In­ter­net re­views, busi­nesses like ours have very few ways to man­age and pro­tect the rep­u­ta­tion we’ve built over sev­eral years of hard work and fair deal­ings with cus­tomers.”

From the very be­gin­ning, Kulp felt the post was sus­pi­cious, he said. He learned more about Norma Lee af­ter fil­ing suit against Google in April. In­for­ma­tion the search gi­ant even­tu­ally turned over helped iden­tify the poster as the hus­band of an Austin Gut­ter­man em­ployee, he said.

Aside from the now­gone re­view, other com­ments on Google Places, as well as those on sim­i­lar sites, are al­most uni­ver­sally pos­i­tive.

“Very fo­cused on cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion; we would rec­om­mend them to ev­ery­one,” one poster wrote. An­other said, “They did an ex­cel­lent job and were very pro­fes­sional.”

Google said it’s rare that a poster’s true iden­tity is re­vealed, but it does hap­pen on oc­ca­sion.

“Pro­tect­ing the pri­vacy and se­cu­rity of our users is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to us,” Chris Gaither, Google’s se­nior man­ager for global com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pub­lic af­fairs, said in a writ­ten state­ment pro­vided to the Amer­i­can-States­man. “Like all law-abid­ing com­pa­nies, we re­spect valid le­gal process. When­ever we re­ceive a re­quest, we make sure it meets both the let­ter and spirit of the law be­fore com­ply­ing. When pos­si­ble and le­gal to do so, we no­tify af­fected users about re­quests for user data that may af­fect them. And if we be­lieve a re­quest is overly broad, we will seek to nar­row it.”

The court fil­ing in­di­cates that Google did let the man ac­cused of post­ing the bo­gus re­view know about Austin Gut­ter King’s suit. That kicked off a string of emails in which the man re­port­edly made “vary­ing ex­cuses for why the re­view was posted” be­fore he later “ad­mit­ted he au­thored the re­view and that it was false,” Kulp’s suit says.

Kulp says the claims made by the poster amount to defama­tion and also run afoul of the state’s De­cep­tive Trade Prac­tices-Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act.

Austin Gut­ter King is seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion for le­gal fees and eco­nomic dam­ages, among other things. A spe­cific dol­lar amount is not men­tioned in the suit.

Web posters should think twice be­fore mak­ing false state­ments, said Lee Ber­lik, a Re­ston, Va.-based lawyer who has han­dled sev­eral In­ter­net defama­tion cases.

“It’s so easy for some­one us­ing a fake name to leave neg­a­tive com­ments,” said Ber­lik, who is not in­volved in the Austin Gut­ter King law­suit. “You can’t get sued for merely stat­ing an opin­ion, but if you go be­yond that and state some­thing as fact and it’s false, then you can be sued for defama­tion.”

On­line claims that make un­true ac­cu­sa­tions can se­ri­ously harm a com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion, Ber­lik said.

“You see all kinds of fraud­u­lent re­views out there,” he said. “My im­pres­sion is this is a huge prob­lem all over the coun­try.”

One ex­am­ple: HotelMe .com, a re­cently launched site that features trav­el­ers’ cri­tiques of ho­tels and mo­tels around the world, claims “in­dus­try ex­perts and re­searchers report that more than 40 per­cent of travel re­views are fake.”

Users post­ing re­views on­line typ­i­cally rate busi­nesses on a scale of one to five, with five be­ing the high­est pos­si­ble score. Any­thing less than five stars can push down a com­pany’s over­all rat­ing, po­ten­tially hurt­ing the bot­tom line, Ber­lik said. Con­versely, a slew of up­beat re­views could goose sales.

A 2011 Har­vard Univer­sity study found that restau­rants that saw a on­es­tar in­crease in their Yelp rat­ings typ­i­cally re­ported rev­enue in­creases of 5 to 9 per­cent. The site most def­i­nitely “af­fects de­mand,” writes Michael Luca, the study’s au­thor, and on­line re­views now “sub­sti­tute for more tra­di­tional forms of rep­u­ta­tion” in many cases.

Kulp said he hopes the suit “sends a sig­nal to

Alberto Martínez / amer­i­can-states­man

Gary Kulp, owner of Austin Gut­ter King, is seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion for le­gal fees and eco­nomic dam­ages, among other things.

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