Fake reviews are a blight on the Internet, but in many jurisdictions they are also illegal. For example, in the European Union, they’ve been outlawed for more than a decade.
And so it is that the proprietor of an Italian service called PromoSalento, which sold hospitality businesses glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, finds himself heading for jail.
The unnamed man received a nine-month sentence from the criminal court in Lecce, in the southern Apulia region. The court also ordered him to pay around €8,000 ($9,300) in costs and damages.
As TripAdvisor (TRIP) described Wednesday in a detailed account of the case, the company was initially tipped off by several Italian businesses, who forwarded the PromoSalento proprietor’s emails in which he offered to write fake reviews in order to boost their rankings on the site.
TripAdvisor’s investigators then identified him, gathered evidence, punished the businesses that bought his services—by demoting them in the rankings—and then went to the police, which were already investigating thanks to a separate complaint.
The cops launched a criminal prosecution against the man, and TripAdvisor joined the case as a civil claimant, in order to share its evidence. The court convicted him in June.
“We see this as a landmark ruling for the Internet,” said TripAdvisor layer Brad Young in a statement. “Writing fake reviews has always been fraud, but this is the first time we’ve seen someone sent to jail as a result.”
The European Union got a new law in 2005 called the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, which bans the practice of falsely representing oneself as a consumer.
Amazon (AMZN) has been known to sue sellers for engaging in review fraud. And in June this year, a Dallas judge sentenced a man named William Stanley to a far heftier 97 months in federal prison, in a case that also involved fake reviews.
Stanley’s tack was more sinister, though: he posted negative reviews and comments of a business from which he had previously extorted money—a crime that also saw him jailed, and thirsty for revenge upon his release.
Last year, TripAdvisor ran into trouble over its own manipulation of reviews—the company repeatedly took down reviews that flagged up sexual assaults at resorts, leading to an outcry that attracted scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission.