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If We Lose the Right to Opinion, We Lose More Than Just Page Views

Back in 2009, I published a post about online watch sales company Melrose Jeweler’s.

The post dissected a press release Melrose had put out, suggesting how the actor Owen Wilson had been saved from suicide by seeing his wonderful Rolex watch, and realizing life was worth living.

Ridiculous, right? Not to Melrose, who positioned themselves as resellers of authentic Rolex watches, and used the news release to show just how awesome Rolex is, and why people should buy from their online store.

(Note: Rolex was never affiliated with Melrose, as has since been publicized by a subsequent lawsuit and the closure of Melrose.)

My original post was an opinion piece, and pretty scathing, questioning the ethics of Melrose and their publicity team. Shortly after the post went live, I received a Cease and Desist letter from Melrose’s lawyer, requesting I take the post down as it was harming his client.

I refused, and instead published a rebuttal post that took apart each of the lawyer’s “statements”, and advised that the post would remain online, as is, as an opinion piece backed by facts.

I never heard from either Melrose or the lawyer again.

For me, that experience with Melrose showed the growing “allure” of blogging and social media – the ability for businesses to be challenged on questionable practices, and be held to a higher standard.

It also showed the growing gap between bloggers and journalists, and why content consumers turned to blogs as opposed to print journalism.

While journalism was often red-taped by editorial decisions and boardroom approvals (based on what political party had the bigger sway with the owner of the paper), blogs could offer stronger opinion pieces that could go straight for the jugular, if you like.

A recent decision by French courts, however, could see the future of opinion pieces, and holding businesses to better standards, become redundant. Or worse.

Opinion Is Great – As Long As It’s Positive

French fashion and literature blogger Caroline Doudet wrote a scathing review of her experience with the Il Giardino restaurant in the south west of France. Much like any blogger worth their salt, Doudet optimized the post title and content to rank in Google’s search algorithm.

Indeed, her post – entitled “The Place to Avoid in Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino” – ranked so well it came up fourth in search results when Google users searched for that particular restaurant.

It was this placement – and the accompanying review published by Doudet – that upset the owner of the restaurant, who promptly sued and took Doudet to court.

In the ruling over the case, the judge ordered Doudet to amend the title of the post, so that it was less inflammatory, as well as pay the restaurant owner $2,000 in damages.

Following this ruling, Doudet actually deleted the post completely, but warns of the precedent this decision sets.

This decision creates a new crime of being too highly ranked on a search engine, or having too great an influence. What is perverse, is that we look for bloggers who are influential, but only if they are nice about people. Source.

That last sentence is particularly telling, both for bloggers and brands alike.

The Neutrality of the Web and the Betterment of Brands

The last few years has seen the rise of bloggers as a prominent feature in any brand’s marketing strategy. This can range from promotional or sponsored posts to working with influential bloggers in a certain field to work through crisis or emergencies.

The trust that bloggers have built with their audiences is hugely attractive to brands looking to reach those audiences – it’s essentially one of the warmest “leads” you (the brand) will have with your demographic. Get the relationship with the blogger right, get the approach to the audience right.

Much of this trust in the blogger stems from the fact the audience knows the blogger has their best interests at heart, and won’t shill for the sake of a few bucks.

Trust, after all, is the currency of any successful blogger.

If we get to the stage where that neutrality and power of opinion is removed because a restaurant owner didn’t like a review, or a brand didn’t like the fact a blogger only gave their product a mediocre review, then we’re taking a major step into losing any kind of protective layer between brands and questionable practices.

While the case of Doudet isn’t expected to set a legal precedent currently (it’s classed as an emergency order that’s causing harm to another party), that’s not to say it won’t be used as a weapon in the battle between brands controlling what’s said about them, and the content creators that are determined to hold these brands to a better modus operandi.

The signs are already there.

Review site Yelp has seen cases of reviewers being sued for their postings, while a bishop sued a blogger for an article where the victim claimed defamation, while the defendant claimed it was satire.

The latter example may be a more clear-cut one: after all, if you break the law, expect the consequences. However, the examples of brands suing against reviews and opinions that don’t offer a rainbows and unicorns view of their service or product is a troubling one.

If we lose the right to opinion, we lose more than page views and comments.Click To Tweet

If we lose the right to opine based on fact and experience, and instead are forced to remain silent or face the consequences, we lose more than just a few page views and comments – we lose the very fabric of what makes the web what it is today.

The only winners when that happens are the brands that have something to hide – the good brands already use negative opinion to improve their service and product.

Surely that’s something we all want, brands and bloggers alike?