Writing a product review on Amazon is usually a pretty mundane process: Pick a star rating, leave a few words, hit “submit,” and immediately forget about it. For one man, though, the process just got a whole lot more interesting (in the bad way). Eight months after a Florida man panned a product online, the company’s lawyer delivered a fresh new legal threat to his doorstep — retract the review, or face a libel suit.
This all began back in September 2013, when T. was helping a friend shop for a new router.
“I did what I always do,” he told Consumerist, which is to search for wireless routers on Amazon, and then filter by reviews and top sellers.
Medialink’s routers were front and center as he browsed.
“I was surprised to see two Medialink routers at the top of both lists,” he said, “a company I’ve never heard of [even though] I’ve bought and recommended plenty of routers over the years.”
At first he thought it sounded like a great product — cheap, efficient, and with glowing reviews. But something didn’t feel right. “Everything was a little too good to be true. Even products I love never have glowing reviews like this one,” T. said. So he took the sensible step of looking for reviews of the product outside of Amazon. Only… there weren’t any.
SO MANY REVIEWS, BUT MOSTLY IN ONE PLACE
“I searched for reviews on other tech sites, and I couldn’t find a single reputable site that reviewed this router,” he said, “Which I thought was odd for such an obviously well-received router.”
Indeed, scouring the internet this week shows that the only high-traffic site mentioning the Medialink products at all is a Digital Trends list from June 2013 — and in a fit of circular logic, it immediately mentions the “5000 customer reviews on Amazon” as evidence of how great the router is.
While he was looking for reviews, T. also found a discussion online indicating that the guts of the Medialink router in question were the same as a less expensive router from a Chinese company, Tenda.
And so he wrote a one-star review of the Medialink product on Amazon, telling would-be buyers of his findings and suggesting that some of the five-star product reviews may be less than legitimate.
IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY…
This week, almost eight months later, the company struck back. A lawyer representing Mediabridge Products, LLC (the same company as Medialink) sent T. a cease-and-desist letter, immediately demanding he take down his negative review or face a libel lawsuit.
Not sure of whether to agree to these demands and edit or remove his review, T. posted the letter to Reddit looking for legal advice, and in the days since the company’s product pages have become completely overwhelmed by the internet pitchfork brigade.
A few key questions sit at the heart of the maelstrom: Why is the company suing? Do they have a legal leg to stand on? And what are they hoping to gain?
The letter T. received zeroed in on two of his assertions: that the product was identical to another product, and that it was “very likely” that Medialink was paying for reviews. The company, via its lawyer, not only demanded that T. immediately delete his review, but also told him that to avoid a lawsuit, he would need to “agree to never purchase any Mediabridge or Medialink product” and also agree “to never publicly comment in any online forum, directly or indirectly through others,” about the company’s products.
In other words, the letter basically says “if you don’t stop saying mean things about us forever, we will sue you.”
This kind of lawsuit is so common now as to have a fancy acronym: SLAPP, a strategic lawsuit against public participation. Because most individuals do not have the resources — both time and money — to dedicate to fighting off a lawsuit from a business, they’ll respond to legal threats like the one T. received by backing down as requested. Thus, the SLAPP manages to shut down dissent or negative criticism without actually having to follow through on taking anyone to court.
We spoke with Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen, who told Consumerist that instances like T.’s are increasingly commonplace. They don’t always result in lawsuits, but the threat alone is significantly cheaper — hundreds of dollars as opposed to potentially thousands — and often works.
Making a deliberately false statement can indeed leave a reviewer open to a libel suit, Levy added, but there’s “a difference between expressing a negative opinion and a statement of fact.”
A ROUTER BY ANY OTHER NAME
As for the facts, the ones around the Medialink router are a little murky. The FCC filing that T. came across (PDF), the “change of identification request,” is genuine but nothing particularly nefarious. Medialink has filed several with the FCC division that authorizes and approves telecommunications and networking equipment. These requests mean that the two pieces of equipment are electrically identical — the circuitry works the same way, using the same frequencies, in both items.
This sort of process is something that happens across nearly all consumer products, and is not unique to Medialink. Think of cars: a Pontiac Vibe and a Toyota Matrix were in most ways basically the same car, but sold as different makes and models, and at different price points.
REVIEWING THE REVIEWERS
The question over the legitimacy of the reviews is more complicated. The “most helpful” positive review of the router comes from a reviewer who made it very clear up front that he received a free review unit, and was asked to test it and share his findings. Several other positive reviews hint that they are from repeat customers who may also have received review units from Mediabridge, but do not ever disclose that fact.
If reviewers did receive free units but did not say so in their reviews, that’s a big no-no according to Amazon’s review guidelines.
The guidelines also prohibit most other things that could be seen as “promotional content,” including “solicitations for helpful votes,” “reviews for any form of compensation” other than just a free review unit, and reviews “by or on behalf of” anyone with a vested interest in the product or its competitor product. (So no getting your spouse, sister, and grandmother to go to Amazon and say how great your item is.)
Mediabridge/Medialink has not yet responded to our request for a comment on this story.
Other reddit posters commented in T.’s initial thread that they have also encountered similar bullying and intimidation tactics from Medibridge/Medialink, though as yet none have confirmed their stories to Consumerist.
Regardless of how often they may or may not have tried it, the company’s tactics are working exactly as they intended on T.
“I just wanted to leave a review with information that I found useful for others who have to decide whether to purchase a product, and not have to worry about being threatened by lawyers,” he tells Consumerist. “It makes me really nervous to leave a negative review in the future. At the very least I’ll never use my real name when posting a review ever again.”