A public relations firm has “settled” Federal Trade Commission charges that it wrote bogus reviews of games on iTunes on behalf of its clients. Its the first major such case since the introduction of new guidelines on disclosure from people writing online.
Reverb Communications staff had “consistently” posted reviews on iTunes using false usernames. Every review rated the game at four or five stars and included comments such as “GREAT, family-friendly board game app” and “Really Cool Game”.
In the wonderful stating-the-obvious style of most legal verdicts, the FTC noted (PDF): “Respondents failed to disclose that those reviews were written by employees of Reverb, a company hired to promote the gaming applications and often paid a percentage of the applications’ sales. These facts would have been material to consumers in their purchasing decision regarding the gaming applications. The failure to disclose these facts, in light of the representation made, was, and is, a deceptive practice.”
Although the FTC didn’t name the games involved, Reverb’s website lists 23 current gaming clients and 33 former clients, including some major iPhone app developers. It specifically lists 20 iPhone games, including iSamJackson and Turf Wars.
According to the FTC, the Reverb reviews breached the Federal Trade Commission Act. This followed revised guidance from the FTC last year that made clear anyone writing online about a product or service shows disclose any material connection they have with the seller. At the time that prompted speculation that amateur bloggers might fall foul of the rules if they failed to disclose getting free copies of a product that they reviewed.
At the moment, Reverb won’t face any repercussions beyond the negative publicity. It will have to remove all the bogus reviews and has signed an agreement committing to disclose commercial connections in the future. Although Reverb hasn’t been found guilty of breaking any laws, the agreement is legally binding and violating it could lead to a fine of up to $16,000.