Unmasking the authors of anonymous reviews

Judith Thompson  04-10-2023

Anonymous reviews published on sites such as Google, Facebook, Trustpilot, Tripadvisor, can be a real headache for the owners of businesses who rely on good ratings to generate their income. Reviews which are published maliciously, or by competitors, can be very easy for a business to spot, but if the review has been published anonymously, using a fake name or an e-mail address which has been set up specifically for that purpose, it can be very difficult to get the review removed.

All review platforms will have a flagging system, whereby business owners can ask the platform to check and delete any reviews which look suspect. However, this system is not a failsafe and there are many instances of anonymous and malicious or fake reviews remaining online, despite being challenged in this way.


How can I find out who has published an anonymous review?

Business owners have traditionally relied upon applications to the Court to persuade the owners of platforms to identify the publisher of reviews, so that they can take action against the authors.

These applications are known as ‘Norwich Pharmacal’ applications, and can be a very effective tool for business owners who are faced with untrue or malicious reviews.


What is a Norwich Pharmacal application?

Norwich Pharmacal applications can be made in circumstances where an untrue or defamatory statement has been published about a person or business, and the publisher of the review has kept their identity hidden. The application is made by the potential claimant in the defamation claim, against the owner of the platform (i.e. Google, Facebook, Trustpilot etc).

The owners of the platform traditionally do not challenge these applications and it is up to the applicant to satisfy a judge that sufficient harm has been caused to their reputation to warrant the Norwich Pharmacal application being successful.

If the application is successful, the Court will order the platform to reveal information to the claimant about who has published the review.


Do Norwich Pharmacal applications work?

As Norwich Pharmacal applications are rarely opposed, claimants may assume that they will simply be granted by the Judge, without any serious scrutiny of the underlying claim. However, a case decided earlier this year, highlights the fact that applicants for Norwich Pharmacal relief must prove that they have a strong underlying case for defamation, before they will be able to find out who is behind the reviews they object to.

The honorable Mr Justice Nicklin (who heads up the media and communications list in the High Court, which deals with libel and slander claims) commented in a recent case that an applicant “must show that a claim that has sufficient weight or substance to outweigh the countervailing rights of the target”. In other words, an applicant for a Norwich Pharmacal order must prove that the right of the anonymous reviewers to freedom of speech (under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights) is less important than their Article 8 rights, which deal with their right to privacy.

In the recently decided case of Davidoff v Google, Judge Nicklin dismissed Davidoff’s’ application for a Norwich Pharmacal order, because the underlying defamation case was “hopelessly weak”.


Have anonymous reviews harmed your business?

If anonymous reviews are causing problems for your business, we will be able to assist.  Our team of experienced defamation lawyers can help you find out who is behind anonymous reviews, and then take appropriate action to sue them for the harm which has been caused.

Provided that the anonymous review includes statements which are untrue, and which have caused serious harm and financial loss to your business, you should be successful in obtaining a Norwich Pharmacal order to unmask the anonymous reviewer, who you can then sue for damages.

Competitors, disgruntled ex-employees, and simply people wishing to cause mischief cannot expect to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, where they cause difficulties for you or your business. 

Contact us today to speak to one of our experienced reputation management lawyers, to find out how we can help.

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