E-commerce players like Amazon and Flipkart will have to voluntarily disclose all paid consumer reviews of products and services offered on their platforms, with the government bringing in new norms to curb fake reviews and help buyers make informed decisions.
However, the government has barred publication of reviews that "have been purchased and/or written by individuals employed for that purpose by the supplier or third party concerned".
The BIS standards, prepared after extensive stakeholder consultations and to be effective from November 25, will be voluntary but the government will consider making them mandatory in case the menace of fake reviews continue on the online platforms.
Consumer Affairs Secretary Rohit Kumar Singh on Monday said the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has formulated a new standard 'IS 19000:2022' for Online Consumer Reviews -- Principles and Requirement for their Collection, Moderation and Publication'.
The standards will be applicable to any organisation which publishes consumer reviews online, including suppliers of products and services that collect reviews from their own customers, a third party contracted by the supplier or an independent third party.
Singh said the BIS will come out with a certification process within the next 15 days to check whether an organisation is complying with these standards. E-commerce players can apply for the certification of this standard with the BSI.
"We are probably the first country in the world to formulate standard for online reviews," Singh said, adding that many other countries are also struggling on how to handle the fake reviews.
"We don't want to bulldoze the industry. We want to take the standard route. We will first see the voluntary compliance and then, if the menace continues to grow, we will, may be, make it mandatory in the future," he said.
While noting that online reviews play a vital role in making purchase decisions on e-commerce platforms, Singh said the three prominent sectors where reviews -- be it in text, video or audio form -- plays an significant role are -- tour and travel; restaurants and eateries; and consumer durables.
Solicited and unsolicited reviews
The BIS has defined reviews as solicited and unsolicited. The person responsible for handling the review in any organisation will be called the review administrator.
Solicited review refers to consumers' reviews of products or services as requested by the supplier or review administrator.
Reviews to be unbiased
The secretary said that reviews should be legitimate, accurate and not misleading. Identity of those who are reviewing should not be disclosed without permission and the organisations should ensure that disclosure of information are transparent. The collection of reviews should be unbiased, he added.
"If a review is purchased or you are rewarding the person for writing the review, then that has to be clearly marked that as a purchased review," Singh said.
Verification of review authors
The BIS has also listed out the steps for verification of a review author.
"The verification of the review author is important... there are websites in countries like Turkey, Moldova where there is a business of fake reviews. So these companies pay money and get reviews. If this is happening, that cannot take place," Singh said.
Chief Commissioner of the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) Nidhi Khare termed such purchased reviews as "fraud reviews".
According to Singh, there are penal provisions in the Consumer Protection Act for unfair trade practices.
Since e-commerce involves a virtual shopping experience without any opportunity to physically view or examine the product, consumers heavily rely on reviews posted on platforms to see the opinion and experiences of users who have already purchased the goods or services.
However, fake reviews and star-ratings mislead consumers into buying online products and services.
Companies and industry bodies in consultaion
The secretary said that companies like Zomato, Swiggy, Reliance Retail, Tata Sons, Amazon, Flipkart, Google, Meta, Mesho, Blinkit and Zepto were part of the consultation process and they have assured compliance with these standards.
Industry bodies like CII, FICCI, Assocham, Nasscom, ASCI, NRAI and CAIT were also consulted while formulating the standards.