An Italian court has overturned a €500,000 (US$550,000) fine imposed last December on the online travel company TripAdvisor for allegedly publishing misleading information in its reviews.
The fine was imposed by Italy's Competition Authority (AGCM) at the request of a consumer organization and a national hotelier association, who argued that TripAdvisor did not do enough to ensure that the hotel and restaurant reviews posted by users on its website were reliable.
In a ruling made available to the parties on Monday, the Regional Administrative Court of Lazio said TripAdvisor explicitly acknowledged that it was not able to check the truthfulness of its reviews and advised users to consider broader trends in user-generated recommendations.
"TripAdvisor never asserted that all its reviews were true, pointing out instead that it is impossible to exercise a blanket control and inviting users to consider 'trends' in the reviews rather than single contributions," the court said. "We do not understand the harm to the consumer identified by the Authority in its concluding arguments."
TripAdvisor welcomed the verdict. The court's decision, it said, "confirmed what we always knew: that TripAdvisor is a hugely valuable and reliable resource," and that the company didn't mislead its users.
The court confirmed that AGCM's ruling was "completely unwarranted," while acknowledging the industry-leading tools Trip Advisor uses to protect its site against fraud, the company said in a statement released Tuesday.
"We see this as a victory for consumers as well as an endorsement of TripAdvisor's commitment to help democratize the travel industry," the statement said.
The National Consumers Union remained unconvinced, saying it intended to appeal the court's "crude thesis."
"We recognize that controlling on the Web may be more complicated than in a physical market, but the law and supervisory activity cannot remain permanently two steps behind current progress," Massimiliano Dona, the union's secretary, said in a statement.
The hotelier association Federalberghi said the court verdict confirmed the existence of a serious problem and complained that TripAdvisor continued to refuse to introduce simple improvements, taking advantage of gaps in the law. The association cited a recent "sting" by the lifestyle magazine Italia a Tavola (Italy at Table), which posted fake reviews of a make-believe restaurant in order to boost it to the top of the TripAdvisor rankings in a small Lombardy town.