Judge orders unmasking of Amazon.com “negative reviewers”

A federal judge has handed down a ruling granting Ubervita, a nutritional supplement firm, the right to investigate the identities of those the company alleges had been leaving “phony negative” reviews of its products sold on Amazon. The company complained of a "campaign of dirty tricks against Ubervita in a wrongful effort to put Ubervita at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace".

The question before the court was the line between a citizen’s right to comment anonymously online and a corporation’s right of protection against unfair business practices. In a recent example of such a case, a federal judge ruled against KlearGear, a company that had threatened legal action against a Utah couple who had left a bad review of their services on Amazon. KlearGear were ordered to pay the couple more than $300,000 (~£176,000) in compensation. The Ubervita case, however, is unique in that the negative comments seemed to be part of a large and complex plot to disrupt Ubervita’s business.

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Ubervita, who manufacture testosterone boosters, weight loss supplements, multivitamins and other nutritional supplements, claim that a series of unknown users had been placing fraudulent orders with the aim of "disrupting Ubervita's inventory"; had placed a Craigslist ad requesting favourable reviews of Ubervita products for cash; and had "posed as dissatisfied Ubervita customers in posting phony negative reviews of Ubervita products, in part based on the false claim that Ubervita pays for positive reviews."

The company also claims that the plot to disrupt their business included emails sent to Amazon under the Ubervita name alleging that they were “selling counterfeit goods.”

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The ruling, which was handed down by U.S District Judge Marsha Pechman, grants Ubervita the power to subpoena both Craigslist and Amazon.com. For the purposes of identifying the suspected offenders, the District Judge ruled that Ubervita may request records containing their “names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, IP addresses, Web hosts, credit card information, bank account information, and any other identifying information".