On Wednesday, a man received a nine-month prison sentence for selling fake reviews to Italian companies on TripAdvisor.
"We see this as a landmark ruling for the Internet," TripAdvisor's associate general counsel Brad Young said in a statement. "Writing fake reviews has always been fraud, but this is the first time we've seen someone sent to jail as a result."
The Criminal Court of Lecce, which handed down the sentence, also ordered the business owner to pay a fine of 8,000 euros (approximately $9,200 USD) to cover the damages.
TripAdvisor was first made aware of the owner's business, PromoSalento, in 2015 after several hospitality businesses forwarded his e-mails soliciting his services to the travel website. The e-mails said that his company would write positive reviews and help improve the property's ratings in exchange for a fee.
PromoSalento had attempted to submit over 1,000 reviews on hundreds of hotels and restaurants, TripAdvisor said in an in-depth report. Through its tracking technology, TripAdvisor was able to identify these reviews before blocking or removing them.
Most companies that paid PromoSalento for fake reviews were demoted within the TripAdvisor Popularity Ranking, while some were given red badges that warned potential customers they were not to be trusted. A few of these businesses assisted TripAdvisor in its investigation by sharing bank transactions and receipts.
While TripAdvisor examined the case, the Italian police had been conducting a separate investigation into PromoSalento, and ultimately brought their case to court. TripAdvisor joined the legal proceedings as a civil claimant, and provided the prosecution with its own evidence.
Related: How to Spot a Fake Hotel Review
Since 2015, TripAdvisor has stopped over 60 paid review companies from engaging in fraudulent activities. The company wants to make it clear that "writing fake reviews constitutes criminal conduct under laws relating to impersonation fraud," citing the European Union's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, which prohibits "the practice of falsely representing oneself as a consumer."
"By working together with the prosecutors in Italy, we have shown those trying to offer paid reviews that they have some skin in the game... and there are repercussions coming for their real-world actions," Young said.
In the United States people who write paid reviews are unlikely to be sent to jail. "I've never seen anything like that happen here in the U.S., but then again our laws are very different from those of Europe," Arizona attorney Anette J. Beebe told the Boston Globe. "The U.S. seems to see these a lot more as civil matters."
Hospitality businesses in the U.S. are more likely to sue people who post slanderous comments on sites like TripAdvisor, while others have been forced to pay massive fines for invalidating negative reviews.
This case could be considered a turning point for the travel site. According to the Boston Globe, Italian officials have previously investigated TripAdvisor for their failure to remove fake reviews from the platform, and in 2017, the company received backlash for deleting reviews reporting rapes and sexual assault at Mexican resorts.