India has one of the fastest growing e-commerce markets in the world and e-commerce transactions have steadily increased across the nation during the past several years. Consumers heavily rely on reviews posted on e-commerce platforms to understand the experience of customers who have already purchased the goods or services, and online reviews have significant influence over purchasing decisions of the consumers.
The Department of Consumer Affairs ("Department") had constituted a committee on 10th June, 2022 to develop a framework for checking fake and deceptive reviews in e-commerce transactions. This committee consisted of various stakeholders including e-commerce companies, industry associations, consumer organizations, law chairs and industry players like Tata Sons, Amazon, Flipkart, Reliance Retail, Google, Meta (Facebook), Swiggy and Zomato, as well as industry bodies like CII, FICCI and NASSCOM.
Recognising the effects of false and misleading reviews and to safeguard consumer interests in e-commerce, a framework titled Indian Standard (IS) 19000:2022 'Online Consumer Reviews — Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication ("Standard")1 was launched by the Department along with the Bureau of Indian Standards ("BIS") for safeguarding and protecting consumer interest from fake and deceptive reviews in e-commerce. The Standard has come into effect from November 25, 2022.
The Standard is applicable to:
- Every online platform that publishes consumer reviews online;
- Suppliers/sellers of goods and services who collect reviews from their own consumers;
- A third party contracted by the suppliers/sellers; or
- An independent third party.
All e-commerce platforms would initially be free to voluntarily comply with the norm. In order to evaluate compliance with the Standard, BIS will also create a conformity assessment scheme. When the Standard is made mandatory, consumers will be able to file complaints with the National Consumer Helpline, Consumer Commissions, or the Central Consumer Protection Authority regarding any entity that violates the Standard, as any such violation will be considered to be an unfair trade practice or a violation of consumer rights.
Following are some of the key points mentioned in the Standard:
- Both the review author (i.e., the consumer who is writing the review to be published on the website) and the review administrator (i.e., organization or individual having the responsibility to manage the consumer review content) are given specific responsibilities under the Standard. For a review author, these include assurances that they have read and agree to the terms and conditions and are giving their contact information before publishing a review. For a review administrator, these include collecting and protecting personal information of the review author as well as staff training.
- The Standard outlines the duties of the entities, such as creating a code of practice to outline how the Standard and its guiding principles will be met and maintained and making this code available publicly to consumers at an easily accessible place; developing a written set of terms and conditions like accessibility, non-compliance, criteria and ensuring that the content of the review does not contain financial information capable of resulting in identity theft, marketing materials, among other things.
- The standard also outlines procedures for authenticating the identity of the review author through their email address, identification via phone call or SMS, confirmation of registration by clicking on a link, using a captcha system, etc. to determine the review author's traceability and veracity.
- The Standard provides for processes that will need to be followed for collection, moderation and publication of reviews from consumers.
- Regarding moderation, the standard outlines both automated and manual modes of moderation as well as methods for analyzing review content.
- The criteria for publication includes considerations for the review administrator both during and after the publication process. In the publication process, parameters for review accuracy, default display, and weightage of ratings are defined.
- The Standard also allows review administrators to offer rewards to review authors subject to the condition that such reviews are separately marked.
- Once a review is placed and made live on a website, customers won't be allowed to change it. Additionally, they must abide by the general rules as well as the rules specific to the website.
If an e-commerce entity wants to check whether their website is adhering to the Standard, they can go to the BIS and get it checked and get certified. But if they do not adhere to the Standard and if they are indulging into a practice which can be termed as an unfair trade practice, then a consumer court can take penal action under the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.