More News:

October 21, 2015

Can companies stop customers from writing bad reviews online?

Yelp and two other review sites file brief in lawsuit against Florida weight loss company

A lawsuit against a Florida company that makes weight-loss supplements has gained national attention, with even Yelp weighing in on a controversial "gag clause" that the company tried to use to prevent users from leaving negative online reviews. 

As the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported, Yelp and two other online review websites have filed an amicus brief in the Federal Trade Commission lawsuit against Roca Labs, which makes weight-loss powders that it claims work as an alternative to gastric bypass surgery.

The FTC sued Roca Labs for allegedly making "baseless claims" about their products and threatening to sue their own customers who posted negative online reviews.

“Roca Labs had an adversarial relationship with the truth,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “Not only did they make false or unsubstantiated weight-loss claims, they also attempted to intimidate their own customers from sharing truthful – and truly negative – reviews of their products."

TechDirt posted the text of a lawsuit that Roca filed against three customers who had signed an agreement not to post negative comments about the company. In the suit, Roca admits that it "pays individuals for sharing their weight loss success stories" and said that the defendants signed the agreement in exchange for a product discount.

One of the customers that Roca sued allegedly wrote to the Better Business Bureau of West Florida that "the main ingredient in the product is sand" and "it was the equivalent of eating silly putty."

Another defendant wrote to the Bureau that "this product made me physically sick" and "is clearly a scam."

According to the FTC, Roca claimed that its weight loss supplements had a 90 percent success rate and could help users lose 21 pounds in a month. The products cost $480 or more for a four-month supply, and the company has sold $20 million worth of weight loss powder since 2010.

"The decision here may have far-reaching application in Federal and state courts throughout the country," wrote Yelp, along with online review websites AVVO and Mediolex, in an amicus brief. These briefs, also known as "friend of the court" briefs, are filed by groups that are not involved with the lawsuit but which to express an opinion to the judge.

The brief called Roca's gag clause an example of "unfair trade practices" and said the review websites want to encourage "the free exchange of consumer information, positive and negative."

As the case continues in court, it could have important implications for any company in the U.S. whose reputation depends on online reviews.

Roca Labs could not be reached for comment.