Say you reserve at a hotel that looks nice in its online display, but when you arrive, you find a surly receptionist, inoperative AC, and cockroaches. And say that you report what you experienced, accurately and honestly, on TripAdvisor. Would you then be shocked to receive a $500 credit card charge as a “penalty” for violating the hotel’s contract prohibiting bad reviews? That’s actually happened to a few travelers, but it won’t happen any longer after the Consumer Review Fairness Act outlaws “no bad reviews” language in consumer contracts.
The Fine Print Prohibits Bad Reviews
Language threatening you if you post a bad review or disparaging photos is incorporated in a large number of consumer contracts, not just travel. You probably never read these full documents, but you actually accept the terms when you buy the product or service. Such “contracts of adhesion” are a big problem for consumers, generally; they’re extremely one-sided and you, as a consumer, never have an opportunity to negotiate terms.
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When you buy an airline ticket, for example, you automatically accept a contract of carriage that may bar you from entering a class-action lawsuit or require that you submit any dispute to arbitration rather than a court of law. Courts have been inconsistent in ruling whether such one-sided contracts are enforceable, and few individual consumers have the resources to fight a big travel supplier on their terms.
If you search the Internet for examples of bad-review penalties, you find that very few individual cases have received widespread publicity. And in most cases the supplier backed down when challenged. But even if you win, the process can be a hassle, and an unpaid penalty can, at least temporarily, reflect on your credit rating.
What the New Bill Protects, What It Doesn’t
So the new bill is welcome: It will settle the issue, at least for posting reviews. The new law does not protect you from libel, if you post something that is untrue; but if you state your opinion, you’re probably safe. The outlook for passage is good: It has bipartisan support in both chambers. Now if we can just get a law limiting anti-consumer provisions in all contracts of adhesion….
More from SmarterTravel:
- Flight-Cancellation Rights: The Ultimate Guide
- Travel Troubles Get Scrutinized
- Air-Passenger Rights: The on-the-Go Guide
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.