Image: Screengrab via Tripadvisor
Review site TripAdvisor may have frantically backpedaled after a Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal expose showed that it had a habit of censoring reviews mentioning blackouts, rape, and suspicious deaths or injuries incurred at certain resorts - specifically Mexican ones, though it remains unclear if other destinations were involved - by adding new functionality warning of potentially dangerous hotels. But the site's belated admission it did wrong might not be enough for the US Federal Trade Commission, which the Sentinel reported this week is potentially investigating whether Tripadvisor acted improperly.
Acting FTC chair Maureen Ohlhausen sent a letter to Senator Tammy Baldwin on Friday, the paper reported, in which the agency strongly hinted it was reviewing the site's business practices:
The Commission has a strong interest in protecting consumer confidence in the online marketplace, including the robust online market for hotel and travel. When consumers are unable to post honest reviews about a business, it can harm other consumers whose abilities to make well-informed purchase decisions are hindered and harm businesses that work hard to earn positive reviews.
According to the Sentinel, since the publication of their report "dozens" of additional TripAdvisor users have stepped forward to allege the site censored their comments. Some of the accusations mentioned hotel staff as perpetrators or unsafe conditions at hotels which led to death or injury.
The site has since admitted to Gizmodo that years ago its moderators deleted comments under a since-revoked policy prohibiting comments that were not "family friendly," as well as comments it deemed to be "hearsay" more recently.
Though TripAdvisor says its commercial and content businesses are separate, the Sentinel noted its revenue model leans heavily on visitors actually booking stays at the reviewed hotels. The paper also noted the way by which resorts are ranked when users search the site is determined by a "secret algorithm" and that the company has refused to disclose which or how many users are allowed "special privileges, including the ability to delete forum posts."
The FTC is the federal agency mandated with consumer protection, including unfair or deceptive practices that prevent consumers from making informed decisions in the marketplace. It's fair to say that any major FTC investigation or enforcement action would be a serious problem for Tripadvisor, whose business model requires consumers have trust in its reviews.
In a statement to the Verge, the TripAdvisor wrote that "We are not aware of an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission nor have they contacted us," and noted it needs to moderate approximately "290 pieces of content a minute."