An epic battle in the Outer Hebrides

By Richard Turen
Richard TurenThis is a story -- a fractured fairy tale, really -- set in a magical landscape filled with castles, the remnants of Norman conquests, a sheriff or two and a fellow who was willing to play David to an online Goliath from Massachusetts.

Our story takes place in the tiny village of Uig, which is nestled in a sheltered bay created by the confluence of the rivers Rha and Conan in Scotland's Outer Hebrides islands. Certainly, tiny Uig and its 363 residents never expected that one of their own might make news by attempting to take on a real-life travel giant. But that is exactly what happened when a small innkeeper saw his business fade following what he claimed were scurrilous reviews posted on TripAdvisor.

Tourists who manage to locate Uig find a community filled with folks who make their living from fishing and the small-scale food production known as crofting. A twice-daily ferry, the Cal-Mac, connects the village to the western islands.

There is a wee bit of tourism. Just past the small police house, there is a path the locals know that will take you into a deep glen with a beautiful double waterfall. A rewarding trek, but it requires more than a little effort.

Visitors also favor the Uig Tower down the Portree Road. Though suggesting Norman architecture, it is actually a modern structure built by one Captain Fraser, a local legend (though not in the best sense of the word) who built it chiefly as a collection station for the outrageous fees he charged local crofters who farmed the hilly terrains abandoned by the wealthy landlords.

A six-bedroom B&B, beautifully situated in the pristine setting where the rivers merge, commands the best view. The owner, Richard Gollin, and his wife, Joanna, bought the Basile na Citte guesthouse and have been making a go of it since the late 1970s.

Things were going well until last year, when suddenly business started to slack off after people posted reviews on TripAdvisor, stating that their rooms had been freezing, there was no hot water and the small dining room was filled with "depressing" war memorabilia. Worst of all, one reviewer -- just one, mind you -- wrote that the "owner was patronizing and pompous."

Sitting in his living room, looking out on a beach fronted by breathtaking views, 64-year-old Richard Gollin got rather perturbed. He contacted TripAdvisor and told them that inaccurate and false reviews of his tiny inn were destroying his business. One reviewer, he pointed out, had even written that guests were "under-fed," a rather rare occurrence in Scotland and, some might say, a cultural impossibility.

Gollin demanded that TripAdvisor remove the comments, which he felt were unjustified. But then he went a step further and demanded compensation for his lost business.

"I believe TripAdvisor is in dereliction of duty in failing to have proper supervision of what goes on their website," he told the local media. "All across the country, people should stand up to TripAdvisor."

This was quickly becoming a crusade, and Gollin clearly felt that he, as a wee business owner of a six-bedroom inn, needed to stand up to the biggest hotel bully on the block, even if that block was a chunk of cyberspace headquartered on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

He waited for a response from the Expedia Corp., which at the time owned TripAdvisor. But no one in Bellevue, Wash., seemed interested in responding to his compensation request. Nor did he hear from anyone at TripAdvisor's headquarters in Newton, Mass.

Despite the serenity of his life and the calming views from his windows, Richard Gollin was miffed by his perceived treatment by a major U.S.-based corporation.

Finally, in a decision that surprised many in Uig, he decided to take on TripAdvisor in a local court of law. So he filed an action in the local Stornoway Sheriff's Court for 3,000 pounds, or about $4,800, the maximum permitted. In his court filings, he asserted that the online reviewer who had claimed he'd been "underfed" was not even on the property on the date in question.

TripAdvisor was not going to play this game. A multibillion-dollar corporation based in Massachusetts can't, after all, be expected to show up in local courts, particularly a "sheriff's court," to defend its policies of transparency and not editing content. The company said it was not subject to the law in Scotland, and a local barrister from Stornoway, Angus Macdonald, was hired to argue the point.

The townspeople were curious about the trial and Gollin's attempt to take on a huge corporation in a jurisdictional dispute.

Gollin first tried to prosecute the claim himself and then brought in a local advocate to assist. The battle raged on for several months in the small courtroom, when, suddenly, TripAdvisor told presiding Sheriff Colin Scott Mackenzie that it was dropping its claim of immunity. In effect, for the very first time -- and in an important legal precedent -- TripAdvisor conceded that it was indeed subject to the laws of Scotland, a concession with implications for international jurisprudence.

This should have been a victory for Gollin and all of those hotel owners, big and small, around the world who have been victimized by fake or erroneous online reviews. But I'm afraid that victory was short-lived.

Mackenzie ruled that the issues of contract law on an international scale were too complicated for his small court. He looked over at Gollin as he made the decision to move the case to a higher court, and told him, "I do have sympathy for you." But he approved TripAdvisor's request to move the trial to a larger, more important court.

The folks at TripAdvisor knew this would spell defeat for Gollin, who would now have to take his battle to a new setting that would require significant outlays of money for attorneys, postponements, consultants and transportation. The small B&B operator from Uig simply did not have the financial resources to wage this case in another venue.

In a single statement to the court, TripAdvisor's attorney made the assertion that "people who use the site do so at their own risk."

That is to say, I suppose, that they -- we -- are victims. And so, too, are the hoteliers who must abide by inaccurate, deliberately false and malicious claims made by self-designated "critics" on the major review sites.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at rturen@travelweekly.com. 
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