The US Federal Trade Commission has successfully brought the first ever case against using fraudulent, paid Amazon reviews to falsely advertise an online product, the agency announced Tuesday evening. The company in question, named Cure Encapsulations, Inc. and owned by Naftula Jacobowitz, paid a third-party website to write five-star Amazon reviews for a weight-loss supplement called garcinia cambogia. The plant, native to Indonesia, is widely mischaracterized as contributing to weight loss, but is in fact known to cause acute liver failure.
Cure Encapsulations paid a website called amazonverifiedreviews.com to keep the product’s Amazon rating above 4.3 out of 5 stars, with reviews stating that the supplement worked as a “powerful appetite suppressant” and “literally blocks fat from forming.” The FTC found those claims to be false and unsubstantiated.
“People rely on reviews when they’re shopping online,” Andrew Smith, the FTC’s director of consumer protection, said in a statement. “When a company buys fake reviews to inflate its Amazon ratings, it hurts both shoppers and companies that play by the rules.” The FTC first filed its complaint on February 19th, and reached a settlement in just under a week.
As part of the settlement, Cure Encapsulations has agreed to never again make a “weight-loss, appetite-suppression, fat-blocking, or disease-treatment claims for any dietary supplement, food, or drug” unless the company has “competent and reliable scientific evidence in the form of human clinical testing” to support its claims. The settlement also prohibits the company from misrepresenting endorsements, including whether a review or testimonial is from a real customer who purchased the product.
Cure Encapsulations must now inform Amazon that it paid for reviews, itself a violation of Amazon’s rules around promotional content, and must also notify all customers who purchased the weight-loss supplement. To keep the company in line, the FTC is imposing a $12.8 million fine, with only $50,000 due today and the remainder used as a way to enforce the judgement and in the event Cure Encapsulations misrepresents how much money it has on hand.
Amazon, in a statement given to The Verge, said its pleased the FTC is taking action. “We welcome the FTC’s work in this area. Amazon invests significant resources to protect the integrity of reviews in our store because we know customers value the insights and experiences shared by fellow shoppers,” a company spokesperson said. “Even one inauthentic review is one too many. We have clear participation guidelines for both reviewers and selling partners and we suspend, ban, and take legal action on those who violate our policies.”
Fake Amazon reviews have been known as a problem for years, but regulators have shown little interest in cracking down on the practice until this recent suit. That’s pushed Amazon to go after the review sellers themselves, including filing individual lawsuits against sellers on freelance job sites like Fiverr. Yet the FTC’s latest action sets a firm precedent that the agency is willing to go after companies that abuse online markets and platforms like this. It’s not clear whether the agency has the resources to curb the behavior behind some of the biggest bad actors on sites like Amazon, but the settlement sends a message that companies like this can’t rely on the trusted veneer of these marketplaces to excuse false advertising.
The FTC has shown a growing interest in abusive practices in the tech industry in recent months, far beyond the low-level scams of fake Amazon reviewers. Earlier today, the FTC announced it would be forming a task force with 17 staff attorneys to monitor and take action against anti-competitive behavior in US technology markets. The task force appears focused on the increasingly centralized power of a few Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook.
Correction: A previous version of this article said Amazon has done little to prevent fake reviews from proliferating on its website. That is not true; Amazon has filed numerous lawsuits against review-selling sites and individual sellers on freelance job sites.
These days, it’s impossible to look anywhere in the tech world without seeing Google’s fingerprints. This was definitely still true throughout 2018 – even Microsoft conceded to Chrome’s web browser dominance.
However, with all the news that’s constantly flying around the internet about Google, it can be hard to pinpoint the year’s most pivotal moments. That’s why we’ve decided to dive into Google’s biggest moves throughout 2018 – with a bit of a look at the future, as well.
Project Fi: all the networks
It was only a matter of time before Google launched its own cellular service – it’s been running Google Fiber, an internet service provider, in select cities for years now. Google Project Fi has technically been running since way back in 2015, but it blew up in a big way this past year.
The way Project Fi works is that you’ll basically pay a flat $20 (about £15, AU$28) a month for all your regular cellular activities, like talking and texting. Then, you’re charged an extra $10 (about £8, AU$14) a month for each gigabyte of data you use. Heavy data users might notice that this would get expensive very fast, but Google put a cap on users’ bills in January, ensuring that users don’t have to pay more than $80 (about £62, AU$113) in a month.
It’s also reliable, as it essentially borrows signal from traditional carrier’s cell towers, like Sprint, T-Mobile and others.
One of the things that has been holding Project Fi back over the last couple years has been the lack of compatible smartphones. Which is why it was such great news when, in November 2018, Project Fi opened up compatibility with Samsung and OnePlus smartphones – oh, and iPhones, too.
But, what about Google Fuchsia?
We’ve been on the edge of our seats anticipating Google Fuchsia for years now, and, well, it’s still not out yet. That doesn’t mean we didn’t get closer to a possible release date for the one OS to unite them all.
Right at the beginning of the year, Google was testing the experimental OS on the Google Pixelbook, with a build that anyone could download and run. It was definitely an early version of the operating system, but it did give users an idea of what Fuchsia would look like, should it ever release.
But, things kind of got complicated from there. Back in July, we got a report that Google was on track to launch Google Fuchsia within the next five years. But, there was a catch: neither Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Chrome and Android lead Hiroshi Lockheimer had signed off on any road map for Fuchsia’s release. Instead, the Google executives referred to Fuchsia as an “open source experiment” rather than an official project.
But, because Fuchsia is an open source experiment, we kept hearing about advances made in the OS throughout the year from security implementations to the search-centric interface. Here’s to hoping all of this leads to something more concrete in 2019.
Some assistance, please
Smart speakers are everywhere these days, with Google, Amazon, Apple and more in a race to deliver the smart assistant for you and your home. In 2018, Google Assistant made waves. Google’s digital assistant was already capable of quite a lot, but after an update in October it’s capable of more than ever.
That’s good news, because the Google Assistant is virtually on everything right now. Beyond every Android phone, it’s on everything from new smart speakers, like Marshall’s Stanmore II and Acton II to Samsung’s next line of smart TVs.
Google is launching plenty of its own devices with its AI software, too, including the Google Home Hub, which goes head to head with Amazon’s Echo Show.
Google obviously has big plans for Google Assistant, and it wants the software running on as many devices as possible. And, if we keep hearing news about plans to bring personalized news feeds to smart speakers, we can’t wait to see what Google Assistant is capable of in 2019.
Google doesn’t just make money by harvesting your browsing data and turning it into targeted advertisements, it also launches mobile and computing hardware. This year, we got two fantastic phones and a tablet.
The Google Pixel 3 and its bigger cousin were the stars of the show, even if it didn’t look like a lot on paper. But, the Google Pixel 3 is more than the sum of its spec sheet, bringing an even better camera – when the Google Pixel 2 was already one of the best cameras in a smartphone. But, that’s not all – Google massively improved the camera software this time around, bringing around OLED displays, even if you’ll have to deal with a notch this time around.
Then there’s the Google Pixel Slate, Google’s answer to the Microsoft Surface Pro – but with much weaker hardware. It’s one of the first Chrome OS tablets on the market, with an optional keyboard cover that’ll set you back a whopping $199 (£189, about AU$280). Starting out with an Intel Celeron Processor, it’s by no means a powerhouse, but is does have its appeal as a media device for Google fans. We would have rather seen the Google Pixelbook 2, but, hey there’s always next year, right?
Google isn’t the easiest tech company to sum up at the end of the year, as a lot of its major moves are drawn out over time, rather than the product releases. However, Google kind of got a lot done this year, even if it’s not as tangible as Apple or Microsoft.
The search engine, long the core of its business, keeps getting better and better, and is more mobile friendly than ever. And, with its expansion into ostensibly being a cellular carrier, Google has a lot to be proud of, and we can’t wait to see where Google is going to expand next. Because, 2018 went to further prove that Google’s movements aren’t as predictable as their peers.
And, while there wasn’t much in the way of new hardware, the new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are genuinely some of the best phones to come out in 2018. We just wish the Google Pixel Slate could have been more impressive. There is plenty of potential for a great Chrome OS tablet, we’re just not there yet.
Maybe in 2019 we’ll see a true follow-up to the Google Pixelbook that redefines what the best Chromebooks are capable of. We’ve been rooting for the Chromebook from the sidelines for a while now, and with the problems Microsoft is having with the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, we think there’s room for Chrome OS to steal some of the spotlight.
This year seemed to see Google laying out a lot of groundwork for future work, and we think it’s going to cash in on this work throughout the next couple of years. We know we’re on the edge of our seats to see what becomes of Google Fuchsia.