The story is a couple of days old now, but I felt I had to flag it up: a French court has fined the author of a blog and ordered her to pay costs for a negative restaurant review which according to the owner of said eatery resulted in lost business. The article, L’endroit à éviter au Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino, (The place to avoid in Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino), which is available on Internet Archive, is written with humor by somebody who had clearly eaten at the establishment, and who didn’t enjoy the experience, and so wrote about it on her blog… for which she has been fined 1,500 euros and a further 1,360 euros in costs.
The restaurant owner alleged that the review came up high in Google searches for his establishment, and that this had put many potential customers off eating there.
Does this mean that from now on we will have to be careful with what we say in a restaurant review in case we land in court? No: it means that some people, among them certain judges, still don’t understand what freedom of speech means. It is obvious to anybody with an ounce of common sense that this decision is wrong, and that the case should now be heard by a higher court: we cannot accept the idea of a society that punishes somebody for their opinion, in the same way as we cannot accept being able to criticize something as long as nobody can read it. Libel is one thing, not being able to express one’s opinions, and trying to silence those who try to do so, is something else, and is certainly not what the justice system is for.
As the author of the review points out, reviewing something makes no sense if a priori, that review must be positive. The secondary effects of this are equally absurd: the restaurant has attracted an infinity of negative reviews on the social networks, many of them probably written by people who have never even eaten there. As usually happens in such cases, the cure is worse than the illness, and illustrates how absurd it is to take such a case to court.
Once again, a number of complicated factors come into play: on the one hand, we’re all afraid of criticism, and hope to have the support of forces to prevent it. Many institutions and individuals would be happier in world in which criticism was channeled via the usual suspects, making it possible to manage it.
At the same time, we all like to think that when we are being criticized, it is with malicious intent, and some people try to suggest that it is part of some conspiracy, taking the matter before the courts. And finally, there are still judges out there who are incapable who still think that different rules apply to the internet, as though it were some kind of parallel universe. The same review in a national newspaper would not have generated any confusion. The criticism made in front of a bunch of friends in a bar wouldn’t have either. But for some reason, when written on a blog, and indexed by Google, other rules apply.
No, judicial decisions like this do not mean that we have to be more careful with what we say online, other than applying common sense and avoiding libeling or insulting people, offenses for sanctions have long since existed. You don’t need to hire a lawyer before having a conversation in a bar, or anywhere else for that matter. If you run a business, you can’t go running to a judge every time somebody criticizes you. What decisions like this mean is that we have to continue exercising our rights online, until at some point common sense and judicial practice come to terms with the reality of the times we live in. Sadly, along the way, some of us will have to pay a high price.
(En español, aquí)