The Department of Consumer Affairs (“DCA” ), along with the Bureau of Indian Standards (“BIS” ), launched the Indian Standard (“IS” ) 19000:2022 ‘Online Consumer Reviews — Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication (“Standard” ) on 21st November 2022. The Standard seeks to provide a framework for safeguarding and protecting consumer interest from fake and deceptive reviews on e-commerce platforms and also attempts to resolve issues relating to online reviews faced by both consumers and suppliers/sellers.
The Standard will be applicable to every online platform which publishes consumer reviews and the government through a Press release has indicated that while currently the adoption of the Standard is voluntary, it can be made mandatory in the future, if required. BIS will also develop a Conformity Assessment Scheme for the standard to assess compliance.
The Standard follows seven guiding principles, namely, (i) integrity by ensuring legitimacy of authors of the review, (ii) accuracy of the reviews, (iii) privacy of review authors’ personal information, (iv) security to protect from fraud, (v) transparency regarding disclosure of information to consumers, (vi) accessibility of information in clear and simple format and (vii) responsiveness towards communications from consumers and in taking action without undue delay.
The salient features of the framework are as follows:
- Consumer Review: Recorded information about a specified product/ service made publicly available by a consumer.
- Review Administrator: Organisation or individual responsible for managing the review content of consumers and sellers/suppliers of the product/service being reviewed.
- Review Author: Consumer writing a review for publication.
- Review Site: Platform which publishes consumer/seller/supplier reviews.
- Flagging: A function that enables consumers/sellers/suppliers to draw the attention of the review administrator to content deemed suspicious.
- Application: This Standard applies to any organization (including suppliers/sellers that collect reviews from their own customer, third parties, whether independent or contracted by such suppliers/sellers) that publishes consumer reviews online collected by any methodology.
- Code of Practice: The review administrator is required to develop a written code of practice outlining the manner of meeting and maintaining the Standard and the guiding principles enshrined in it. This code must be made available to management, staff and consumers at an easily accessible place.
- Terms and Conditions: The review administrator is also required to develop a set of terms and conditions(“T&C” ) stating the rules and criteria for submitting a review to ensure, inter alia, that the content of the review describes a personal consumer experience, the information is factually correct to the best of reviewers’ knowledge and that the content is not defamatory. While the review administrator can add criteria, such additional criteria should not be capable of causing bias in the evaluation of the product/service.
- Solicited and Unsolicited Consumer Reviews: Reviews can be solicited or unsolicited. For soliciting reviews, invitations should be sent to all consumers known to have purchased the product or service indicating, inter alia, who is soliciting the review, details of the product/service for which review is sought, etc. On the other hand, a consumer can provide an unsolicited review only if they provide their personal information and accept the review administrators’ T&C.
- Communication Channels: Effective communication channels, by providing specific contact channels and allowing registration of business online profiles, must be developed by the review administrator to communicate relevant feedback with the suppliers/sellers of the products/service. In the event a third-party has been engaged to manage reviews on behalf of seller/supplier, the review administrator should liaise with the supplier/seller to discuss the best way for sharing consumer feedback.
- Review Collection Process and Responsibilities of Participants: The review administrator is required to use an “objective and demonstrable process” for collecting reviews. The feedback must be collected along with the date of submission and rating. As a part of this process, review author must be given an opportunity to create an online profile, confirm if they have read and accepted the review sites’ T&C and provide their contact information either at the time of registration or before submission of each review. The review author can also choose to remain anonymous.
- Moderation Process: All reviews are to be moderated against a predetermined published set of criteria to decide their suitability for publication. The conditions pertaining to moderation include, inter alia, compliance with the review sites’ T&Cs, implementing methods for handling volume of reviews, tracking the participants of the review process, examination of the language etc. Review administrators can reject or remove reviews if the reviews fail to meet the T&C.
- No purchased reviews: The Standard requires a review administrator to not publish any review that has been purchased or written by “individuals employed for that purpose by the supplier/seller or by a third party”, intentionally.
- Rejection of consumer reviews: Prior to publication, the review administrator can reject a consumer review if it is discovered to be fraudulent or if it fails to meet the T&C.
- Removal of consumer reviews: A review administrator is required to remove the consumer review at the review author’s request. A previously approved and published review can also be removed if it is determined that the review author and the content did not meet the T&C. Fraudulent reviews can also be removed from the review site. A marker indicating the removal can be placed where the review was posted with an explanation for such removal. The records of all published reviews and documents attached to the reviews that have been removed along with the reason for such removal shall be retained for at least 180 days from the removal date.
- Editing the content: Review authors can edit their own reviews before and after publication. However, the review administrator shall not be able to edit the review at any time.
- Publication Process: The review administrator is required to ensure accuracy of the review. Further, the default display of reviews should consist of a submission date in order to chronologically display the most recent review. Overall ratings, by combining the total ratings given by individual review authors for each specific product/service submitted within specific time period, should also be provided. The publication process, aggregation and weighting method used by the review administrator should be made available on the review site. Further, the reviews, whether positive or negative, should be published as quickly as reasonably possible to eliminate bias. The Standard prescribes that the reviews should be published within 72 hours in case they meet the T&C but no longer than one month of the submission and that the reviews should not be suspended due to any communication with the seller/supplier.
- Flagging a Review: Review authors, users and seller/suppliers of the product/service should be enabled to flag a review if it contains illicit or inappropriate content, if it has been submitted with the clear intent of harming the reputation of the product/service, or if it contravenes the T&C of the review site. Once flagged and recognized as illicit or inappropriate, the review should be removed by the review administrator. The review administrator has the right to remove the user account profile of the review author in such a case.
- Sellers/Suppliers’ Right of Response: The sellers/suppliers have been provided to respond to published consumer reviews for giving their version of events, thanking the review author and indicating any changes made to the product/service since the review was written. Such responses made by the sellers/suppliers are also to be reviewed and moderated by the review administrator.
- Publication of Reviews from Another Review Site: The Standard allows publication of reviews from another review site as long as such reviews comply with the terms and conditions of the review site and if it can be distinguished that the reviews are from the other review site.
The Standard has been issued in light of the rise in e-commerce transactions in the country and the impact of the consumer reviews in influencing consumers’ decision while making a purchase. The initiative, taken by the DCA and the BIS, is a welcome attempt in ensuring the genuineness, authenticity and trustworthiness of the reviews and protecting the interests of the consumers.
However, from a compliance standpoint, the Standard requires significant changes in the existing policy and technologies on the review administrators’ end, potentially increasing the costs particularly for start-ups and micro and small entities. Additionally, while the Standards are well-intentioned several requirements, including ensuring no purchased reviews, content moderation etc. are difficult to implement particularly by smaller players. This could potentially affect the ease of doing business as well as the Startup India Initiative taken by Government. Further, as per the Press Release, while the Standard is currently voluntary in nature, they can be made mandatory if required and, once made mandatory, the violation of the Standard by any entity may be considered as an unfair trade practice or violation of consumer rights and a consumer may submit such grievances to the National Consumer Helpline, Consumer Commissions or the Central Consumer Protection Authority. Given these challenges, the decision of making the Standard mandatory should ideally be carefully assessed through a thorough and industrywide consultation process to ensure that all types of online platforms are on the same footing, and also provide sufficient time for implementation of the Standard.
Link to the Press Release regarding the launch of IS 1900:2022 https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1877733
Link for accessing IS 1900:2022 – Online Consumer Reviews — Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication https://standardsbis.bsbedge.com/BIS_SearchStandard.aspx?Standard_Number=IS+19000%3a2022&id=0