iTunes reviews: faked?Ever wonder who writes fake user reviews on the Internet? So does the
United States Federal Trade Commission, and they've found their first
answer: Reverb Communications.
A high-profile public relations firm in the video game industry,
Reverb Communications represents major clients like Harmonix and MTV
Games, as well as their products, such as Rock Band. They also represent
smaller studios that sell games through the iTunes Store, and that,
according to The New York Times, is where they ran afoul of the FTC.
In a recently filed complaint, the FTC pointed out that Reverb's fee for representing clients' games "often includes a percentage of the sales of its clients' gaming
applications." In other words, Reverb has a financial interest in the
sales of games it represents. With that established, the FTC claimed:
"From approximately November 2008 through May 2009, Reverb employees,
including individual Respondent Tracie Snitker, and company managers,
posted public reviews about Reverb's clients' gaming applications in the
iTunes store. These reviews were posted using account names that would
give the readers of these reviews the impression they had been submitted
by disinterested consumers."
According to the FTC, Reverb employees posed as regular users and
posted fake user reviews about their clients' games on the iTunes store.
This is backed up, in the complaint, by a small sample of reviews the
FTC claims were written by Reverb, including:
"Amazing new game"
"ONE of the BEST"
>"[Developer of gaming application being reviewed] hits another home run with
[gaming application being reviewed]">
"Really Cool Game"
"GREAT, family-friendly board game app"
"One of the best apps just got better"
"[Developer of gaming application being reviewed] does it again!"
The FTC withheld the names of the games that Reverb was reviewing, as
well as the identities of the clients for whom they were posting
reviews. They also stopped short of court, allowing Reverb to settle.
According to the New York Times, the PR firm "agreed to remove all of the iTunes reviews that appeared to have been written by ordinary people but were actually written by
employees of the company." Reverb does not have to pay a fine, though
the firm does have to make its interests clear in any future product
Stacey Ferguson, a lawyer in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection,
said of the settlement "We hope that this case will show advertisers
that they have to be transparent in their practices and help guide other
Reverb, on the other hand, posed the settlement in a different light,
stating "Rather than continuing to spend time and money arguing, and
laying off employees to fight what we believed was a frivolous matter,
we settled this case and ended the discussion."
The FTC's actions against Reverb are the result of new guidelines
published in October of 2009, which are the first of their kind since
1980. Greeted with skepticism and dismay by many bloggers, it was feared
that the new rules would enable the FTC to seek sanctions against any
writer who reviewed products they received for free, a common practice
in many industries.