Is It Legal To Write A Negative Online Review About A Business?

Is It Legal To Write A Negative Online Review About A Business?

My last real estate agent was a real piece of work. She was a bully and I would actively avoid calling her even when my rental apartment needed repairs. Last week I moved out of that property and was forced to deal with her again. She was still as rude as ever. I had made up my mind to leave a strongly worded review on the real estate agency’s Google+ page, but is it legal for me to do so?

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Online review forums like TripAdvisor and Yelp are providing a platform for disgruntled customers to rage about businesses that have slighted them. For some, it’s a form of catharsis while others genuinely want to warn people against working with dodgy companies. But in recent years online reviews have come under scrutiny around the world. Businesses at the receiving end of the negative comments are concerned about how the bad reviews could impact their bottom line and some have taken legal action against their keyboard-wielding detractors.

In Australia, an eBay buyer was sued by an a seller after writing bad reviews under local defamation laws.

All states and territories in Australia have passed the Defamation Act 2005, which is applicable to online reviews. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees may take legal action against writers of negative online reviews under claims of defamation. That’s not a free pass for small businesses to sue the pants off anybody that says a bad word about them online.

According to HHG Legal Group, to successfully make a defamation claim, the business will have to establish the following in Court:

    1. The comment is ‘defamatory’ – that is, the comment must damage the business’s reputation in the eyes of the public;
    2. The defamatory comment was published to at least one other person (not including the defamed business); and
    3. The defamatory comment identifies the defamed business.

      For a small business to be successful in mounting a defamation case, it will have to prove that the published material was not the honest opinion of the reviewer, or that the reviewer was acting maliciously. In other words, the reviewer’s intention must have been to damage the reputation of the business. Unfortunately, malicious reviewers often betray this very intention with extreme language and repeated targeting of a particular business.

    If you’re writing a review with the purpose of trying to ruin the reputation of a business then that could land you in hot water. But if you’re writing a truthful, honest review about your experience, then you’re well within your right to do so.

    The trick is to avoid raving and ranting like a lunatic when you’re leaving a review. Before you bash out a 1200 word essay on how horrible a business was and how the staff were all a bunch of morons, sit back, take a deep breath and gather your thoughts. Try to write a sensible review that states the facts on the issues you had with the company in question. Not only will your feedback be more likely to be taken serious but you’ll also minimise the risk of being sued for defamation.

    Law firm, Slater + Gordon, urges people to consider the following when writing an online review:

    • the review should be treated as if it is being published to the world at large, given how fast online publications can spread (or go viral);
    • it is not published for an ulterior motive;
    • the review is truthful and accurate about any experience you have. This doesn’t mean you can’t use humour or satire in making your review enjoyable for others to read; and
    • there can be serious repercussions if an online communication is defamatory of a person/business

    Did you just catch yourself wondering if something was legal or not? Let us know and we may be able to answer it in our next Is It Legal? feature.


    • If you’re writing a review with the purpose of trying to ruin the reputation of a business then that could land you in hot water. But if you’re writing a truthful, honest review about your experience, then you’re well within your right to do so.

      What if I’m writing a truthful, honest review about my experience, with the purpose of trying to ruin the reputation of the business?

      Also, considering that the author is a journalist, in this particular situation, I wonder if freedom of the press would protect you.

      • You’ve been watching too much American TV where the 1st Amendment is mentioned. This isn’t America, Australia does not have an equivalent, there is no defined “freedom of the press”.

    • Australia doesn’t have a comparable ‘freedom of the press’ section or amendment to our constitution. Avoid overally colourful language, provide factual scenarios (rather than generalizations about behaviour) and let the readers make up their own mind whether to take your advice or take a chance. First up, always protect yourself in these types of exchange, as you’ll be kicking yourself on the off chance that you go all out an a horrible review, are brought up on it by the business and then have to pay them more money as a result.

    • I wrote a review of a company recently, which one might call quite bad. I don’t often write reviews but this one deserved a mention as I used to be a regular customer until one horrible experience.
      Now if this company were to take me to court over this review, I would say the exact same thing in court as I did in the review, because it was the truth.
      This is the reason companies treat their customers right, to get good reviews! If you do otherwise, you are going to get bad reviews. That is business. And your business will be directed elsewhere.

    • Of course it’s legal to write a negative review. It just needs to be “reasonable”.

      If there’s some clear breach of contractual or service delivery expectations, then write a factual, objectively toned review. Cite specific examples or grievances as these will be much harder for any company to defend.

      If it’s a perceptual failing (such as the rudeness example in the OP) then write an open, subjective review. Make it clear it’s n=1 opinion and YMMV. Avoiding tirades and profanity will help too. It would be hard for a company to dispute an individual’s perception. Just because they disagree or feel it’s a slur against their reputation doesn’t necessarily mean it’s invalid or inappropriate. Again, citing specific examples of what occurred or was said would help justify those perceptions.

      This comes back to what’s reasonable. If the “average person” would sense there was some vindictive agenda and the dispute seems somewhat flimsy, then it doesn’t pass that test. On the flip side, if that “average person” would sense an attempt to misuse defamation laws to cover up sub-standard performance, clearly that test is also (obversely) not passed. You’d like to think this is reflected in our system of arbitration and peer review.

      • I noted the comments above and wonder what is considered a ‘reasonable’ negative review? do you know of anyone that I can run a negative review past to see if it is considered ‘reasonable’? In essence I paid a dog trainer to work with my dog, attended, 54 min lecture on dog psychology, then we went outside, he used a dog collar on my dog that is illegal to import but not illegal to use (how they got here I do not know!) and I was adamant this is not how I want my dog trained. I left, he contacted a week later and I told him of concerns, he was busy that following week, agreed to contact me in two weeks, never heard from him. So my review said that I paid X amount, he used an illegal collar ( turns out not illegal to use but illegal to import – see above) and that there was nothing on his website to indicate he used this method and I felt the website was deceptive and fraudulent misrepresentation as it only showed videos or photos that indicate a methodology based on positive interactions. He left a voicemail threatening legal action if not removed so I removed it but…I believe I should be able to express my concerns and opinions question is how to do that without being sued. any ideas of who could help?


    • The issue is with rentals, i feel that we have to be nice or possibly get shitlisted, i’ve had my share of bad agents and land lords,

      one agent even tried to get repairs done in the final week that i requested months earlier, i of course told them no they can fix it when we have gone.

      one lot were so incompetent they called us weeks after our lease ended to find out when we are going to hand the keys back, even though we gave the keys back a week early after the landlord rocked up for the 7th time unannounced (which they failed to prevent).

      Basically it seems all agents treat renters as a PITA because they would rather be selling houses than dealing with us, but if we kick up too much of a stink we may find ourselves ostracized and find it hard to find a new rental.

    • Recently a customer of mine wrote a horrible and damaging review against my small business on a very popular booking agent, this customer did this review before I had any idea of her issue and once it was brought to my attention and I sorted out her issue she advised what she had did and now wanted this removed, well this booking agent that I advertised my business through said the first review is the only review accepted and they would not remove this extremely bad review even those the customer wrote an email, called and pleaded that this is no longer how they feel and no at all a true reflection of our service and wanted it removed. They refused and we sent them an email asking why cant they remove this as support to us there customer and they said this review was the real truth and they did not want to mislead others by not showcasing how this customer was feeling. It was so stupid the reasoning from this big agent who didn’t have any understanding of the damage this could do to small business and considering had 3 10/10 reviews before this one it was unfair and left me with sour taste and still cant believe that the customer could not change her review nor do a 2nd review to allow customers to know to ignore the bad review she had written and why. Appalling

    • I wrote as a guest about being bullied and threatened by a physiotherapist who wasted 9 months of my time and money. I wrote up my various bad experiences with him on his Review site which I thought was there for the truth to be told, obviously not? I am trying to get some information as to why these sites are there if you can not tell the truth. It is not on your discussion site??
      Thank you

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