published on November 23 and which are currently voluntary and non-binding on internet and ecommerce firms, are applicable to any organization that publishes consumer reviews online.
The panel will review after six months or a year whether the guidelines can be made mandatory, Rakesh Mohan Joshi, chairperson of the BIS committee, said.
“There is already a lot of resistance to these standards from sections of the industry that want to manipulate online reviews,” Joshi said.
He added that organizations can get their websites certified by BIS to adhere to these standards.
The guidelines are meant to fight the menace of fake online reviews and provide ways to ‘verify a review author’ through email, telephone, or text message to confirm the registration, or by clicking a link, and using a captcha system, to establish genuineness. They also have implications for app store ratings.
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The industry has welcomed the guidelines since they are “voluntary”, but it is questioning whether there are enough technology tools available for it to implement these guidelines.
Ashish Aggarwal, vice president and head of public policy at IT industry lobby group Nasscom who was part of the consultation process when the guidelines were being drafted, said it was a good idea for the BIS to adapt international standards and make it suitable for Indian conditions. The standards cannot, however, be manually implemented, he added.
“Larger companies may have in-house capabilities to develop the needed software tools. Small platforms may not be developing all their technology in-house. They may be using outsourced modules and use service providers for payments, logistics and third-party apps for review mechanisms. Are there enough review mechanism software tools in the market that adhere to the BIS standards? If it is readily available, then it is easy for online players to onboard a mechanism,” Aggarwal said.
Some experts also expressed concern over whether the move would have enough impact since there is an absence of penal provisions in the guidelines.
Although the guidelines do not provide for adverse consequences for non-compliance, the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (CPA) defines unfair trade practices, they said.
“Practices like creating fake accounts for posting reviews or suppressing negative reviews would be treated as an unfair trade practice. The guidelines can be treated as yardsticks to check for businesses adopting these unfair trade practices,” said Vikram Sobti, a partner in the disputes practice of Chandhiok & Mahajan, Advocates and Solicitors.
The CPA defines unfair trade practices as an unfair method or deceptive practice for promoting the sale, use or supply of any goods or services.
Consumer affairs secretary Rohit Kumar Singh had reportedly said at a press conference during the release of the guidelines that if companies indulge in unfair trade practices, then the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) or a consumer court can take penal action under the provisions of the CPA.
Joshi, told ET, “These guidelines are voluntary, but the industry will be watched”.
“There are several product review and rating websites/apps which just provide information and many a time plant a negative review to attract brands. This will have to change as the guidelines will require them to make disclosures and identify the person rating,” said Sachin Taparia, founder, Local Circles, and one of the members of the BIS committee that drafted these guidelines.
For platforms like Google and Meta, the new rules will require them to validate the real person behind the review through the specified mechanisms. This means fake accounts created just for review writing will go away over time or won’t be able to review, said Taparia.
Google and Meta did not respond to ET’s requests for comment.
The guidelines will also have an implication on the ratings of apps on Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store where developers at times run paid campaigns to get their app rated five stars, he said.
The guidelines also provide for ensuring that the organization’s practices on the disclosure of information to consumers, suppliers, personnel and other interested parties regarding online consumer reviews are visible in all its undertakings, decisions and policies.
The organization should be transparent about all methodologies, and ownership, that may impact or influence a consumer’s use of the review site.
“Such transparency calls for adequate disclosures. However, it appears that such disclosures are voluntary in nature, and hence self-regulatory,” Sobti of Chandhiok & Mahajan said.
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