Amazon and Google are being investigated by the UK’s competition watchdog over their efforts in tackle fake reviews on their platforms.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said its initial work on the issue, started just over a year ago, raised a number of concerns and it would now “gather further information to determine whether these two firms may have broken consumer law by taking insufficient action to protect shoppers”.
The issue is more complicated than it would appear on the surface as it takes in the activities of paid-for review manipulation operators – a bugbear of consumer groups.
It also claimed to have uncovered 10 sites also soliciting positive reviews in exchange for free products or cash.
The CMA said its formal inquiry would examine a number of areas including “suspicious” patterns of behaviour where “the same users have reviewed the same range of products or businesses at similar times to each other and there is no connection between those products or businesses”.
That work, the regulator added, would also take in where the review suggests that the reviewer has received a payment or other incentive to write a positive review.
The CMA said it was yet to take a view on whether the companies had broken consumer protection law but has the power to issue formal commitments, if warranted, rising to court action if any remedies it demands are ignored.
It builds on action taken by the CMA last year over the trading of fake reviews which resulted in Facebook, Instagram and eBay removing groups and banning individuals for buying and selling fake reviews on their sites.
CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli said: “Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations.
“Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake 5-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence, while law-abiding businesses lose out.
“We are investigating concerns that Amazon and Google have not been doing enough to prevent or remove fake reviews to protect customers and honest businesses.
“It’s important that these tech platforms take responsibility and we stand ready to take action if we find that they are not doing enough.”
Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said the issue had “long been a thorn in the side” of his members.
“The use of digital platforms has the potential to be a huge springboard for small businesses, but more than a fifth report problems associated with fake or malicious reviews.
“This investigation should focus both on fake positive reviews, that unfairly promote businesses online, as well as malicious reviews, that unfairly target smaller firms.”
Amazon told Sky News it had taken a “relentless” approach to tackling the issue with some 200 million suspected fake reviews stopped in their tracks last year alone before even being seen by consumers.
A spokesperson said: “To help earn the trust of customers, we devote significant resources to preventing fake or incentivized reviews from appearing in our store.
“We work hard to ensure that reviews accurately reflect the experience that customers have had with a product.
“We will continue to assist the CMA with its enquiries and we note its confirmation that no findings have been made against our business. We are relentless in protecting our store and will take action to stop fake reviews regardless of the size or location of those who attempt this abuse.”
Google was yet to comment.