The ‘Online Consumer Reviews- Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication’ recently published by the Bureau of Indian Standards, regulates reviews on online platforms and recommends procedures to maximise its benefits to consumers and platforms. This article seeks to analyse its provisions, including the positives and negatives.
In November 2022, the Bureau of Indian Standards released the ‘Online Consumer Reviews- Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication’ (“Online Review Standards”/”Standards”)). These Standards are based on the international standard ISO 20488: 2018, which have been modified to suit Indian stakeholders.
With the advent of an e-commerce-driven world, accurate and reliable reviews become increasingly important, as they are the primary way for a consumer to gauge the quality and trustworthiness of a product or service, akin to a digital extension of word-of-mouth and organic marketing. Reviews also help fair and free competition to flourish, as relatively newer or smaller brands can also be recognized basis good reviews, despite being unable to shell out large traditional marketing budgets.
Various studies have also evidenced the reliance on reviews by Indian customers, where negative and mixed reviews reduce the sale of goods and services, and positive reviews drove them up. This was seen to be especially true for luxury products with hefty price tags.
In a setting where reviews offer benefits to both consumers and businesses, it is important to ensure certain minimum standards that enable reviews to work as they need to.
As the Online Review Standards contain certain obligations, (even though some provisions are merely recommendations and principles), violating the said obligations would allow consumers to file complaints before the appropriate consumer fora in the country.
The Basic Structure
The Online Review Standards divide the review process into three steps- collection, moderation and publication. Before the review process, the organization or individual responsible for managing the reviews (“review administrator”) must put in place terms and conditions that anybody wishing to post a review agrees to comply with. Review administrators here, include any e-commerce platforms on which reviews are published, any external consumer review sites, and individual online retail/service stores that host reviews for their products.
The review itself needs to contain two elements as a part of its basic structure- (i) the date of the review, and (ii) a rating. Other features, including any descriptive written review, additional content like pictures/videos, among others, are incorporated in the Standards merely as recommendations, and therefore, are optional for the review administrator to provide for and for the review author to enter. Also, no standard format of a rating (For eg.- a scale of 5 stars, which are ordinarily used) have been made obligatory.
The Online Review Standards function not only as a statutory standard, but also guidelines for an ‘ideal’ review process. The Standards include certain recommendations and principles- which enable small and medium players, without strategic teams, to approach how reviews could be structured and operated for optimum benefit for them and the consumers.
On accessibility, the Online Review Standards are easy for an ordinary individual to comprehend, as it incorporates easy-to-access flowcharts to breakdown the basic structure of the review process along with the obligations the review author and administrator must comply with. The criticism then, however, against the Standards is the lack of publicity and popular dissemination of them to reach smaller players. This could likely be corrected with better academic analysis and criticism of the same, on more popular channels like traditional media.
Two major goals envisaged in these Standards are
- ensuring the authenticity of reviews, and
- protecting the privacy and security of the review author’s data.
The first key goal, ensuring accuracy of reviews, required that the reviews are coming from real consumers and their experiences, and are not fraudulently posted malafidely by interested parties.
To achieve this, dual obligations have been imposed. First, review administrators must maintain an explicit set of terms and conditions. The review author is then required to accept the said terms and conditions in order to be able to post a review. The terms and conditions, among other things, must state that-
- the review contains a personal experience of the consumer,
- that the information being posted is factually correct as far as the consumer knows, and
- it must not contain defamatory language.
The review administrator is also required to have a moderation process (either done manually, or automated or both). If found that the review does not conform to the terms and conditions or is fraudulent, it must be removed by the review administrator. The Standards also require for the review administrator to allow any user or service provider/supplier to flag any review contravening such terms and conditions or seem to be inappropriate, attempting to be defamatory or submitted with any mala fide.
The second obligation is for the review author to provide an email address and contact number to be able to register with the review administrator and/or post a review. This mechanism works by verifying of the review author’s identity and ensuring they are a valid consumer.
However, this mechanism is to be read with the privacy and security right placed of the author’s data. The Standards provide for anonymity of review authors by displaying only a nickname in place of a link to their profile or their complete names. All personal information of the author including such contact details must be kept secure, confidential and must be used only for the purpose of moderation of reviews.
The privacy provision also puts an express ban on sale of such data, which seems to be a necessary step, given that the current privacy regime is not sufficient to make such explicit safeguards. Such protection can be used for specific data sets (in this case for e-commerce platforms and the data provided to them for review moderation) at the level of specialized regimes and standards until we have a comprehensive privacy law regime in the country. (The only legislative protection for privacy as of now is the Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices And Procedures And Sensitive Personal Data Or Information) Rules, 2011 framed under the Information Technology Act, which is not only limited to covering data deemed to be ‘sensitive personal data or information’ but is also grossly underdeveloped. It stipulates for body corporates to have privacy policies and security practices, however it fails to address inter alia the consequences of withdrawal of consent by data subjects, cross border data transactions, among other issues. The said rules also do not apply to non-sensitive personal data, which would include the kind of data dealt with in the case of these reviews).
Other obligations on the review administrator include not knowingly publishing any paid reviews, having all reviews receive equal treatment whether positive, negative or neutral, and non-removal of any review from platforms for at least a period of one year.
Certain provisions are not an imposition on the review administrators or authors, however are recommended to be followed for ease of the consumer and good business practice.
The Online Review Standards provide for two recommended mechanisms for collection of reviews. First being reviews voluntarily submitted by authors, and the other being solicited reviews, where consumers can submit reviews after being asked to submit them by review administrators.
Additionally, reviews can also be incentivized with rewards, however such rewards are not to be contingent on the content of the review, whether positive or negative. Such reviews are also to be marked as such, for the purpose of transparency. Such a mechanism provides a push for consumers to review products and services, further easing the process of relying on reviews for consumers themselves and building trust within the review networks.
The Standards also recommend having automated moderation systems to filter out profanity, check for any bias in reviews by verifying the author’s identity and ensuring they meet the terms and conditions. Allowing such processes to be automated reflects the technology friendly policy regimes we are moving towards.
Another recommendation includes providing sellers and service providers “a right to respond” to reviews. However, this provision is a misnomer in the Standards, as it has not been drafted as a right, but merely an opportunity, if incorporated by the review administrator on such recommendation.
A recommendation that could have been made an obligation, the review administrator can contact suppliers and service providers to alert them in case of safety issues or other risks. As a matter of importance, this provision could have been made an obligation in respect of the review administrator, as a question of consumer safety is involved. Such a provision is an extension of the undecided question of liability of e-commerce platforms and intermediaries in case of consumer rights violations by the supplier or service provider. An imposition of liability on the e-commerce platforms or review administrators in such cases would be an additional incentive on such e-commerce platforms to act on concerns of consumer safety and prioritize consumer interests.
Also, in the event review administrators wish to publish reviews from external review sites or other review administrators, they can distinguish them from their own and such reviews must follow the same requirements as native reviews. This provision although not establishing any right or recommendation for review sites to be able to import external reviews, it potentially envisages such a future likelihood. Reviews on e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Zomato, and other intermediaries often benefit from network effects where platforms hosting reviews work such that consumers are incentivized to publish reviews on a single larger platform, as these reviews and ratings are more reliable, as they are better averaged out across a large pool of review authors. This network effect is attributable to reviews essentially being data, and data platforms benefit largely from networking effects, as increase in volume of data also means increase in its utility and quality for a consumer of that data. Restaurants learn consumer choices better, and the algorithm of the platform also leans consumer tastes and likings better, providing better recommendations and/or hierarchy of display for products and services. This benefit of presence of increased information on a single platform is known as ‘data network effect’. As a result, consumers also tend to shop from these platforms more than other e-commerce platforms or individual suppliers or service providers. When reviews are then allowed to be exported from such platforms, it could potentially weaken their monopoly and allow for a more competitive e-commerce space.
Other recommendations in the Standards include allowing the author to edit reviews, providing for chronological display of reviews, providing time limits for moderating reviews, to provide for overall ratings when multiple reviews are available for a product or service.
These Online Review Standards are a step in the direction of standardizing what reviews must look like and basic requirements they must conform to in order to make e-commerce more reliable and trustworthy. Other recommendations and provisions also allow e-commerce players to create review systems in accordance with the recommended structure given in the Standards. Overall, the Standards seem to be a fairly comprehensive and well structured set of requirements and principles making room for both consumer and e-commerce players’ interests.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.