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Spill Your Guts: Bill Aims To Protect Online Reviewers
Spill Your Guts: Bill Aims To Protect Online Reviewers

By Marc Lifsher
May 21, 2014 9:32AM

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Consumers in California who aim to wage a war of words against retailers and other businesses they are unhappy with may soon have greater protection under the law. A new bill would make it illegal for retailers to require customers to agree not to complain publicly, such as in online reviews on sites like Yelp, about their purchases.

Some bills that ordinarily might generate some controversy fly through the Legislature with nary a vote against them.

Consider AB 2365 by Assembly Speaker Emeritus John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles). Introduced in February, it has encountered almost no opposition.

The bill seeks to provide some new legal protection for consumers who offer online opinions or comments. It would make it illegal for retailers to require customers to agree not to complain publicly, such as in online reviews, about their purchases.

Such legalese often is found in small type in pop-up windows that prompt online buyers to agree to the terms before completing a purchase. Merchants, before threatening to or taking legal action, would have to prove that a customer knowingly and voluntarily agreed to not post negative comments.

"If merchants think that our 1st Amendment free speech rights need to be curtailed, they should say so upfront and in plain language," Perez said. His bill is supported by consumer advocates, the Los Angeles city attorney and TechNet, a lobbying group for many Silicon Valley companies.

It's unclear how big a problem Perez wants to fix. According to legislative research, Perez appears to have based his measure on a single case, reported by CNN, of an online retailer trying to collect a penalty against a Utah couple.

That apparently was enough to win unanimous passage from the Assembly Judiciary Committee and a bipartisan 14-3 vote on May 7 from the Appropriations Committee.

"When you have got pretty diverse support and no opposition and with the speaker running the bill, those bills do seem to lead a charmed life," said Chris Kahn, a veteran Sacramento contract lobbyist. Kahn is not working on Perez's bill. But, maybe, said Randy Kanouse, a retired water lobbyist of 32 years, it's because the bill "really does very little."

© 2014 Los Angeles Times (CA) under contract with NewsEdge. All rights reserved.

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