Judge Authorizes Disclosure Of Reviewer's Personal Data In Amazon Case

A federal judge has authorized a nutritional supplement manufacturer, Ubervita, to subpoena Craigslist and Amazon for the personal details of reviewers who reportedly posted negative things about the company and its products. We've seen this question come up more than once in the context of an individual's right to privacy and whether a review is free speech -- but if Ubervita's arguments are accurate, it's been subject to significant fraud.

Of course, whether or not you think this is something to get upset about depends on whether or not you think nutritional supplement companies are snake oil salesmen to begin with. Ubervita is a manufacturer of testosterone boosters, weight-loss drugs, and multivitamins -- which is to say, Ubervita is a company that sells utterly unregulated products to Americans, is legally held to no standard of efficacy or proof, and is not obligated to ensure its pills actually contain the listed substances. So long as it doesn't poison anyone with heavy metals or give you a case of salmonella, the government stays out of it.

What Ubervita is selling, however distasteful, appears to be legal. The tactics of the online reviewers it's pursuing, however, most likely aren't. According to the company, fake reviewers have attempted to sabotage by posting false Craigslist adds offering people $10 for a 5-star review on Amazon. People on Amazon then leave negative reviews pointing to the Craigslist posts as proof that Ubervita pays for reviews as a form of advertising. Ubervita also alleges that individuals placed maximum-sized orders for its products on Amazon in an attempt to cause warehouse issues and long order fulfillment times, and that individuals went so far as to pretend to be Ubervita in official correspondence with Amazon.

The Privacy Tangle

Given these circumstances, it's not surprising that Judge Marsha Pechman ordered that ""Ubervita may serve subpoenas on Amazon Inc... and Craigslist Inc, intended to learn the John Doe defendants' identities including names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, web hosts, credit card information, bank account information, and any other identifying information." What's a bit more surprising is that Amazon wasn't more helpful in the investigation itself.

Please don't ever buy this stuff

The tension in these kinds of cases is that turning over the identity of reviewers' on the grounds that their reviews could theoretically of harmed a company (or holding reviewers' to an arbitrary distinction of "truth") are both standards that could have substantial chilling effects on freedom of speech. As indicated, I personally have zero sympathy for the manufacturers of snake oil and useless supplements that do nothing but siphon money away from the gullible in 99.9% of cases. But the more you read about the case, the more it's apparent that this isn't really about reviews -- if Ubervita's complaints are accurate, the company has been the target of a deliberate effort to destroy its business, and bad reviews are just one of the methods the individuals in question used.

We're generally sympathetic to protecting individuals from this kind of reach, but if Ubervita's claims are even half accurate, this is not the kind of system privacy laws are intended to protect.