Who: French Parliament
When: 7 October 2016
Law stated as at: 13 October 2016
The French Digital Republic Act (“LOI n° 2016-1321 du 7 octobre 2016 pour une République Numérique “) (the Act) came onto the statute books. This is an important milestone in the French privacy world, as the new Act introduces various amendments to the French Data Protection Act of 1978 prior to the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) entry into force in May 2018.
In particular, and of significant interest to advertising & marketing industry businesses, the Digital Republic Act imposes new specific obligations on consumer review websites.
By way of a background, this change follows the introduction by the French industry standards body AFNOR in 2013 of the first “voluntary norm” for customer reviews and ratings over the internet, which allowed businesses following the AFNOR guidelines to obtain the “NF Z74-501” accreditation on their website, thereby reinforcing consumers’ trust in them. Such guidelines included the obligation on each person leaving a review to identify themselves (and leave two methods of contact), restrictions on amending reviews once posted, or an obligation for reviews to appear in chronological order only. In addition, websites using the NF accreditation could be audited at any time, and could face fines of up to EUR 200,000 if they failed to prove that a minimum of 95% of reviews originated from real customers.
However, the AFNOR norm did not result in more transparency amongst consumer review websites. Accordingly, with a view to increasing fairness, improvement of information, and regulation of online reviews provided to internet users, Article 52 of the newly voted Digital Act implemented Article L. 111-5-3 of the French Consumer Code, which requires consumer review websites to disclose to users their methodology for verifying online reviews.
This disclosure obligation applies to platforms which “undertake, as their main or a secondary activity, to collect, moderate or broadcast online reviews from consumers“. They must provide “clear, loyal and transparent information on the means by which online reviews are controlled”, through:
- Expressly stating whether said reviews have been verified (and if so, websites should clearly specify the main procedures for verification);
- Displaying the date when the review (or any subsequent update) was published;
- Informing the user if his/her review is not published, and explaining why; and
- Providing, free of charge, functionality allowing companies whose products or services are the subject of the online review to report any doubts they may have on the authenticity of a specific review.
The French government is hopeful that this new obligation will allow consumers to decide for themselves how much trust they can place in the reviews available and, thus, in the website which publishes them (for instance, the AFNOR had reported that, while 9 out of 10 French people do read online reviews and 89% of those find these “useful” or “very useful”, three quarter of french consumers also think that such online reviews are fake).
Why this matters:
The issue of the reliability of online reviews is obviously important both for consumers and businesses operating on the Internet. In promoting these new provisions of the Digital Act, the French Government stated that “whilst imposing systematic verification of reviews would place an excessive technical and material burden on some websites and compromise the wealth of sources of information for consumers, the fact remains that consumer confidence in online reviews, and more broadly in e-commerce, must be maintained“.
Given that the decrees implementing the French Digital Republic Act are anticipated before the end of 2016, we recommend that consumer review websites promptly turn their attention to ensuring compliance with the new text.