Our family restaurant competes every day — particularly against national chains and their million-dollar advertising budgets. We combine great food with lots of personality, but we also get lots of help from our customers who post glowing reviews online.
Customer reviews may be our best marketing tool. So many people say they visited for the first time after reading about us on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook and Google. But now I’m worried because the politicians and lawyers in government might screw it all up. They are picking a political fight about the internet, but I’m fighting for my small business and our employees.
Most people don’t realize that one section of one law, passed in 1996, is the foundation of online reviews and made Yelp and TripAdvisor possible. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — known as CDA 230 — permits consumers, commenters and politicians of all stripes to speak their minds online about restaurants, salons, politics and even their nosy neighbors. Because of CDA 230, I can’t sue Nextdoor if a customer posts a negative review about our restaurant. Television manufacturers can’t sue Walmart.com because they don’t like what a purchaser says about their product. And politicians can’t sue websites if you criticize their positions on issues.
CDA 230 protects the digital platform, and that means the digital platform can let people speak their minds.
All these online opinions are great for small businesses that rely on reviews. The problem is oversensitive politicians. Some politicians believe that big internet companies like Twitter and Google are biased and favoring one political party or particular political views. These unhappy lawmakers are trying to punish the big internet companies by stripping away CDA 230 legal protections, so then the internet companies can be sued if you or anyone disagrees with what a commentator posts.
Realistically, we know that new laws and several lawsuits will not shut down Facebook or Google. But if new laws weaken CDA 230 and smaller companies have to hire lawyers to review every negative post and review, some companies might decide that the “review business” is too costly. Millions of small businesses might lose our most valuable marketing tool.
If TripAdvisor, Yelp and other review sites go out of business, our customers and neighbors will lose their megaphones and small businesses will lose a competitive edge.
Today, Facebook encourages small businesses to create free pages and have customers post reviews. In the future, will Facebook charge me a fee for every review to pay all the new lawyers? Will Google also start charging a fee to list my business and host reviews?
Politicians think CDA 230 is about politics, but for me, it is about my business. Consumers will lose the most because there will no longer be online reviews, or the lawyers will delete negative reviews to protect the website from getting sued.
The internet has completely changed how businesses operate. It has leveled the playing field for small businesses like ours and helped us compete and win. By meddling with CDA 230, politicians in Washington are putting all those gains at risk.
I am not going to argue with them about our Constitution, and they are welcome to go to war against Big Tech. But if websites and social media platforms are legally responsible for every consumer review, the “online reviews” business model might collapse, and millions of small businesses will be collateral damage in a fight among billionaires. That’s not right.
Frankie DiCarlantonio and his family operate the Scaffidi Restaurant Group in Steubenville.