In late 2018, Rod Harris, owner of a Cairns-based telco TeleBiz, noticed a sudden rush of negative reviews about his business appearing on the internet.
“These guys were putting up stuff each day,” he told Information Age.
“It was like a machine gun going off. They weren’t letting up.”
Harris claims to have known the culprits: a handful of ex-employees who had joined a rival business – Harris calls them “wannabe competitors” – and were weaponising social media and review sites to muscle in on TeleBiz’s market, Harris alleges.
Memes were made and shared, comments left, reviews posted – often using similar language to call Harris “misleading and deceptive” – with the bad actors going far enough to impersonate Harris and his family.
Hundreds of posts, comments, and reviews were left on the internet in the two-year campaign to take TeleBiz down. It cost the company millions of dollars in contracts, Harris said, and made it difficult to hire new staff.
“We had customers who for years had carriage services with us. Suddenly they cancelled because they thought we were crooks,” he said.
“At one point we were trying to get a sales guy and had one candidate coming up from Sydney who seemed perfect.
“All of a sudden he went cold on us. Later he told the recruiter he’d seen the stuff online and chose to walk away.”
As the online attack wore on, Harris consistently lobbied the likes of Google, Facebook, and Glassdoor to have it all taken down.
Upon hearing his pleas, many of the platforms were willing to help; an Australian review site even offered to set up a sting operation to help catch the culprits.
Glassdoor was the worst
But through all the difficulties of dealing with automated complaints systems embedded in highly-scaled internet companies, one platform stood out as the most difficult to work with: Glassdoor.
“We were communicating, or trying to, with Glassdoor to say, ‘this is no good and it needs to stop’,” Harris said.
“We gave them examples of the type of things these people were putting on other platforms, showing them proof that this was a targeted attack on me and my business.
“Glassdoor was not interested, they fought back in every quarter.”
Glassdoor is a platform that encourages employees past and present to leave reviews of their workplace and was in the news this week after New Zealand toy company Zuru secured a subpoena forcing Glassdoor to reveal the names of people who left anonymous negative reviews.
Zuru’s management wants to sue the authors of the “spam” posts but didn’t know who they were, and Glassdoor – which upholds a policy of account anonymity – kept pushing back.
Preserving anonymity is an important part of Glassdoor’s service because it encourages people to be honest without fear of reprisal from former managers or future employers.
Glassdoor deliberately locks out users from casually scrolling through the site unless they have submitted a review or salary for the site in the past year.
Business owners have previously had success against defamatory Google reviews including an Adelaide lawyer who won $750,000 back in 2020.
Harris has since managed to scrub TeleBiz’s inauthentic reviews from Glassdoor – although there is still one left on the page of a Viennese company with the same name – but he remains deeply unimpressed with how much Glassdoor fought his requests to have reviews taken down.
“It’s the worst experience I’ve had with any social platform provider,” Harris said.
“I’m at the stage now where I won’t be satisfied until they are banned in Australia, or at least until they can demonstrate they have improved.”
The ongoing bad reviews campaign against him ended late last year coinciding with, Harris claims, the “wannabe competitors” being bought out by another company.
It was a traumatic experience, one Harris obsessed over as he tried to clear his name.
On Google, you can see Harris go into the weeds against reviewers.
He wrote long comments in response to accounts with names and avatars of fictional TV characters – like Rachel Green from Friends, former ABC presenter Tony Jones, or 20th century psychologist Karl Lashley – warding off onlookers that the reviews were all from “the same coward psycho jerk”.
In 2019, Harris penned a lengthy submission to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) about cyberbullying in which he called for extreme measures like mandatory registration for internet users.
Experiences like Harris’s led the previous government to unsuccessfully introduce laws requiring social media companies to have specific complaints mechanisms making it easier for people to de-anonymise users.
Digital rights activists warn attempts to remove online anonymity harm free speech, lead to increased censorship, and negatively impact our right to privacy.
Along with the cost to his business, Harris said his young son walked out of the family home, not sure what to make of the allegations against his old man.
“At least now I feel like waking up each morning,” Harris said, relieved to be on the other side of the ordeal.