Actions of US tech giant are questionable and have left a family business struggling with a tsunami of negative and vituperative commentary after it was forced to seek legal relief when an expat American teacher, Wesley Barnes, refused to cease a damaging and malicious online campaign against it in July, August and September this year. It followed a one night stay in the hotel on June 27th last. The case raises serious questions on the accountability of American internet giants in Thailand, their behaviour and respect for local legal jurisprudence which cannot be dismissed and is an increasingly pressing issue for many countries in the world.
A struggling hotel on Ko Chang has now experienced a second wave of negative fallout following a scurrilous campaign waged by a vindictive guest, by his own admission, against it from July to September this year, on the travel review website Tripadvisor leading to his arrest on defamation charges. Having reached an agreement with the chastened and apologetic guest in early October to drop the charges, the US man left Thailand this week only to be followed by the US website placing a warning label on its listing and opening it up to a flood of negative reviews and commentary from all over the world. The fallout from the sting has also hit a smaller resort and hotel on the island of Ko Mak, with the same name, whose business has been devastated in a groundswell of negative sentiment sparked by the website’s actions.
A hotel that spent the summer trying to negotiate with a guest, a US expat teacher named Wesley Barnes, waging a virulent and destructive campaign against it using international review websites, and which was forced to take legal action in the Thai courts against the man leading to his arrest and subsequent detention in a prison on Ko Chang due to his inability to pay bail, has reason, this weekend, to regret making a deal with him to drop all charges which it did in recent weeks.
Defamation in Thailand, as with other matters, that are normally reserved for civil proceedings in western countries, is a criminal matter on which police are called upon to intervene.
Already ravaged hotel now facing another crisis
The Sea View Resort hotel on Ko Chang is facing another crisis after it emerged, late this week, that the Tripadvisor website and a former disgruntled guest appeared to have acted in collusion after it finally withdrew its legal action and proceedings brought against the guest in September.
This was in line with a deal brokered in early October between the parties. A condition of that agreement was that the guest, Mr Wesley Barnes, would work towards having a holding notice placed on the hotel’s listing on the website taken down.
It has been revealed that Tripadvisor became involved in discussions with the hotel and Mr Barnes to resolve the matter, at a very early stage, after he was arrested and charged before the court on defamation charges in late September.
Hotel trusted Tripadvisor was acting as an honest third party attempting to find a resolution
The hotel, it is understood, viewed the Tripadvisor site as being constructively engaged, as an honest third party, in attempting to find an equitable resolution.
The hotel’s original view was that it had been damaged by the guest’s unreasonable behaviour and was forced to seek legal remedy because of his intransigence.
Based on the agreement, when it received a letter from the US-based website confirming that it would take down the notice placed on its listing, it considered that the final part of an agreement negotiated with Mr Barnes, under the auspices of the police chief in Ko Chang in early October, had been complied with.
Charges dropped against the US man allowing the return of bail and his passport from police custody followed by an act of reprisal by Tripadvisor
On this basis, it confirmed in writing its agreement to the charges before the court in Ko Chang to be withdrawn in recent weeks.
This allowed Mr Barnes to collect his bail monies posted and also his passport from prosecuting police.
On Wednesday, Mr Barnes departed Thailand and not long afterwards. a new, even more damaging notice appeared on the site referencing the case in more detail.
In addition, reviews on the hotel, which had been paused, were reopened for users to wade in.
American admitted that his review campaign was malicious saying he had gotten ‘carried away’
In the agreement, reached in October, and his previous public statements after his arrest, the American admitted openly that his campaign was a personal crusade against the hotel and that he had gotten ‘carried away’ with himself after being vexed by a disagreement with its Czech restaurant manager over a disputed $15 corkage fee which the hotel eventually waived to resolve the disagreement amicably.
Similarly, the hotel insists that it reached out to Mr Barnes for nearly three months before his arrest by police when it was, reluctantly, forced to take legal action against him to settle the matter.
Mr Barnes, in a public statement to the media, days after his arrest in September, acknowledged this but admitted that he considered the hotel’s threat of legal action was not serious and therefore, he was not minded to discontinue his campaign which was causing severe damage to the establishment.
Ongoing campaign of repeated negative reviews accusing the hotel of maltreatment of staff and insinuations against the Czech hotel manager
The American’s campaign consisted of repeatedly posting reviews of the hotel accusing it of mistreating its staff and issuing slurs, attacking the Czech national who managed the hotel’s restaurant while alluding to matters relating to the Covid-19 crisis. All claims were baseless and unfounded.
It is understood that a number of his reviews were taken down by Tripadvisor while staff from the Sea View Resort attempted to open discussions with him to cease the campaign through online messages, emails and finally telephone calls but to no avail.
The US man was impervious to the hotel’s pleas.
Small hotel now engulfed in negative online fallout
Now, it also appears that the problem has impacted another a small hotel on Ko Mak, again in Trat province and also called Sea View Resort which reported that it has been inundated with negative and damning reviews by worldwide Tripadvisor followers and activists.
‘Unfortunately in this story no principles or winners and our small 3-star 15 room resort has suffered irreparable damage,’ said exasperated owner Luca Belacucci this weekend as he explained to one of the resort’s supporters that the situation was extremely hard to bear while explaining that it was not legally possible to change the name of the smaller establishment.
Big tech firm behind Tripadvisor appears to have been determined to have the last laugh on the matter
Meanwhile, Tripadvisor, the American big tech firm appears to be using its power and influence in a retaliatory manner against the small family business on Ko Chang.
The objective appears to be having the last laugh over a hotel that had the misfortune to entertain a somewhat deluded and nasty guest this year who has caused irreparable damage to its name and reputation.
The Sea View Resort on Ko Chang is a boutique hotel that enjoyed a very high reputation on the influential US travel website before June 27th when Mr Barnes arrived at the establishment and stayed one night with a friend.
Controversy all began when Mr Barnes insisted on bringing his own alcohol into the hotel’s restaurant
On the night of June 27th last, a row erupted over the hotel’s corkage policy when Mr Barnes insisted on drinking a bottle of alcohol at the table that he had bought externally.
This was resolved, in his favour, after some acrimony but the American admitted later that he witnessed, while inebriated and from a distance, an interaction between the restaurant manager and a member of staff which he deemed as justification for his vendetta against the hotel.
Please see our earlier reports:
Mr Barnes, in early October, formally and with the advice of legal representatives signed an agreement with the hotel and its lawyers after it was reluctantly forced to bring legal proceedings against him because the US man refused to believe that the threat was real and was intent on pursuing his damaging campaign against the establishment.
US man later recanted his claims and accepted that his actions were unjustified and wrong in the settlement
Mr Barnes later recanted his harmful allegations in full against the hotel as well as the offensive remarks about a foreign member of its staff, the Czech national who was managing the restaurant on June 27th who dealt with the guest and his friend.
The case drew media attention when Barnes was arrested by Immigration Police the day after he applied for his visa in late September and was taken to Ko Chang for questioning where he was subsequently charged and held in the island’s prison for two nights as he was unable to initially post bail.
In Thailand, defamation is a criminal matter as are many other aspects of law which in western countries would be dealt with as civil cases.
Part of the agreement that Mr Barnes made with the hotel, at the beginning of October, was that he would seek and obtain a commitment from the American site Tripadvisor to remove a warning badge or information panel it had placed over the hotel’s listing.
US and international coverage of the story has been superficially one-sided dismissing the context
In America, media coverage of the story has been linked with anti-government protests in the kingdom as well as a growing and already deep-seated prejudice towards Thailand’s traditional and idiosyncratic society and legal system.
In the eyes of the American media, Wesley Barnes’s actions have been portrayed as an exercise in free speech for which he suffered imprisonment.
The Tripadvisor site itself appears to be ignoring its own site policies as it had earlier removed Mr Barnes’s most damaging reviews because of their intentionally defamatory nature.
It should also be noted that in most western countries, it would be quite possible to seek injunctive relief from the civil courts and pursue financial damages against the American based on the outrageous, unsubstantiated and incendiary nature of the reviews Mr Barnes left on the site.
Highlights a growing problem for small business owners across the world with the arbitrary power wielded by such websites which is difficult to counter
The case also highlights a growing problem for many firms across the world dealing with the ethos and nature of sites like Tripadvisor as the cost of such actions in civil courts is prohibitive for most small business owners.
Bradford Young, a Vice President and general counsel for Tripadvisor made the site’s position clear this week. He said that the company’s model was built on affording all its users the ‘right to write’.
He went on to justify the site’s actions in this case. ‘This is the first case we are aware of where a Tripadvisor member spent time in jail as a result of a review they posted to our website.’
This point of view assumes that Thai law should be similar or equivalent to US law which highlights part of a growing issue with giant, worldwide US websites which do not make allowance for local jurisprudence.
Similar problems have arisen, in recent months, between Facebook and Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society. They are bound to become more frequent. A key question is the respect and understanding that global internet giants show for local laws.
The issue raised is complex and must take into account laudable American principles such as free speech, on one hand, and the rights of local people and firms to protect themselves against abuse, on the other, as in this egregious case.
Tripadvisor handed Mr Barnes a letter promising the hotel that the notice on its listing would be removed
It is understood that Tripadvisor handed over to Mr Barnes, at some time before or after a deadline at the end of October, a letter promising to remove the panel containing a holding message on the hotel’s listing on the website which disallowed reviews and obliquely referenced the controversy.
It has also emerged that Tripadvisor intervened, at an earlier stage, to assist in paying Mr Barnes’ legal bills and helped to convince the hotel to negotiate and find a way out of the proceedings with him.
These talks took place on Ko Chang and were overseen by the local head of police on Ko Chang, Colonel Kitti Maleehuan.
However, it now appears that Tripadvisor acted in bad faith with the hotel who said, this week, that it was ‘deeply disappointed’.
It is understood that Mr Barnes quietly left Thailand this Wednesday after which, the Tripadvisor site posted a new, far more specific and damaging notice about the controversy and legal case.
‘This hotel or individuals associated with this hotel filed criminal charges against a Tripadvisor user in relation to the traveler writing and posting online reviews.’ Then Tripadvisor added this: ‘The reviewer spent time in jail as a result.’
At the very least, the notice lacks context including the global site’s role in the affair.
Site inundated with hate-filled and negative reviews
Since that notice was placed, the site has also dropped the hotel in its rankings and the listing has been flooded with aggressive and negative comments from outraged Americans and international online users across the world.
Before the incident, the hotel had an excellent reputation with an overwhelming majority of reviews being positive leaving the hotel within the top 20% of hotels on the island.
The Sea View resort is one of the area’s largest employers.
After Tripadvisor reopened the listing for comments and reviews, the response was not surprising with disparaging reviews being posted by people in droves presenting themselves as visitors to the hotel.
One of the latest reviews suggests: ‘Don’t even think of staying here’. As well as highlighting bad service and prices, the supposed reviewer also warns visitors that they could be jailed.
Another man described his experience of the hotel as a ‘Holiday from hell’ after deciding to spend the last few days with his girlfriend there.
A third example described the hotel’s only attraction as its ‘eye candy’ appearance but then describes a holiday from hell which is clearly at odds with the preponderance of reviews left for the hotel before this incident. It concludes with: ‘Terrible experience. One star would be gracious.’
These are, clearly, not genuine reviews yet they appear on the website.
It should be noted that all these reviews have been filed by persons unknown creating usernames by which an account can easily be set up for this purpose.
This is what Mr Barnes, himself, did after June 27th last with the Sea View resort being the only establishment he targeted for review.
Controversy spotlighted Thailand’s draconian laws dealing with online content and material
The controversy has drawn attention to Thailand’s legal system and some draconian legislation on the Thai statute books including the Computer Crime Act and a contentious article in Thailand’s original criminal code, Section 112, which outlaws any criticism of the Thai monarchy in any manner, which can lead to 15 years imprisonment on even the flimsiest basis.
The laws have become the subject of debate and controversy in Thailand with opposition groups, the business community and indeed the public calling for their review.
The Thai King himself is reported to have, this year, asked the current Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha not to invoke Section 112 of the criminal code against his subjects.
Use of such laws very carefully applied
It should be noted that efforts by the Thai government since the coup in 2016 to rein in or control the media as well as freedom of expression, using such legislation, have been very limited and carefully used.
Authorities have tended to focus on actions to quell damaging rumours or causes of panic amongst the public.
In mid-October, the Central Criminal Court in Bangkok cited Sectiosn 35 and 36 of the 2017 Constitution restricting any attempt by the government to block or shut down mass media deemed essential to public discussion.
Similarly, the Thai government itself has attempted to exercise restraint against US tech firms even where they appear to defy Thailand’s laws on illegal content.
In the case of Mr Wesley Barnes, the legal proceedings were based on his deliberate intention to defame and injure the commercial interests of the already struggling hotel on Ko Chang because of Covid-19, a situation certainly not akin to political commentary or freedom of expression.
However, in recent years, Thailand’s ranking for press freedom has been falling and it is now ranked 140th out of 180 countries surveyed by Reporters without Borders.