Anonymity Is a Threat to E-Commerce

Can they stop the fake reviews?

Photographer: John MacdougalL/AFP/Getty Images

The Internet's lovable but frustrating toddlerhood may be coming to an end. That doesn't mean, however, that it's getting easier to impose adult supervision.

The latest illustration of the point comes courtesy of Amazon, which has gone to the courts to unmask fake reviewers who have tarnished the site's credibility. In April, Amazon went after website operators who advertised fake reviews with such hard-to-miss URLs as buyamazonreviews.com. Most were shut down.

Not satisfied that it had stamped out the practice -- the toddler, after all, can just find another room to trash -- Amazon is now going after individual reviewers, asking the courts to award costs as well as unspecified damages for the "manipulation and deception" of customers. The 1,000-plus defendants are referred to as John Does, the term used for an unidentified person.

Most savvy consumers long ago stopped paying attention to unusually positive or negative reviews. Nevertheless, sophisticated reviewers claim to be able to fool the human and computer filters designed to catch them. In an undercover investigation, the Times of London was able to push an e-book to the top of an Amazon best-seller list by paying for reviews. Meanwhile, authors who have had their work trashed by troll-reviewers can testify to how damaging that can be.

Can Amazon succeed in weeding out all fake reviews? In a word: No. But it has rightly judged them to be a threat to the trust on which much e-commerce depends. Whether the legal system offers the best way to maintain that trust remains an open question.

At any rate, the case for cracking down on fake reviewers highlights a distinction with a difference in the digital age: Privacy and anonymity are not the same, and they do not deserve equal treatment. The former is a right that consumers should expect and companies should honor. The latter, with some notable exceptions, too often masks activities that don't deserve protection and which distort competition.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.