THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Queasy exchange: Anonymous web digs rile restaurateur

"It's been a learning experience for me," the website's owner says. Well, yes. The restaurant owner whose business was recently featured on the website, however, appears to be more bruised than enlightened. 

I'm leaving both parties anonymous because I want to focus on the bones of the situation– one that's increasingly common in cyberspace– without being distracted by local details; I also think the restaurant deserves a break from another airing of a harmful (and unverified) claim. 

The website owner created and maintains an online guide to local restaurants, where anonymous writers can post comments and rate individual restaurants on food, value, and service. Comments have to be okayed by the website owner, who bars vulgar language and messages that don't offer more than, for instance, "This place sucks." He also filters out multiple comments on the same restaurant– whether positive or negative– from a single writer by checking the writer's IP address. 

On June 13, an anonymous writer said he had eaten at the restaurant in question the night before (let's call it "Spoon") with unhappy results. Although the food had been "tasty," he wrote, by the time his party left he was "feeling a bit wheezy." Apparently that's a cross between "queasy" and "woozy"– rather than a respiratory problem– because he spent the rest of the night "puking [his] guts out." 

The anonymous writer attributed his illness to "food poisoning (most likely from the seafood)," and added, "After doing a little asking around, it turns out that many people have had a similar experience with [Spoon]. So be warned!!!"

The website owner posted the message on Tuesday, June 13 without doing any fact checking, such as asking the writer whether food poisoning had been diagnosed by a doctor or just presumed. 

The restaurant owner wrote a lengthy and aggrieved response on Saturday, June 17, in which he claimed that when the unhappy diner contacted him, he had advised the man to notify the health department. The health department had investigated, he stated, "and found no evidence of food poisoning, nor did the vomiter seek medical attention... nor did anyone else complain that evening, not one, about becoming ill." 

That same weekend, the original complainer emailed to ask that his comments– which, in reflection, he considered "harsh"– be removed. The website owner, who was reading his email from out of town, replied that he wouldn't be able to delete the original message until he got home. When I asked why he couldn't have erased the message right away, he said he needed to verify that the request came from the original complainer's IP address (and not, for instance, from the restaurant owner's). That, in turn– because it would mean getting into the website's administrative area– required more time than he wanted to spend while traveling. 

The message was deleted on Monday, June 19, but by then the website owner and the restaurant owner were deeply embroiled in a lengthy exchange replete with dire accusations about the other's integrity (or, of course, lack of integrity). Soon the website owner had a link to the email exchange at the top of his website– with the headline "Arsonists, Nazis, and Child Molesters," no less– and seemed more interested in duking it out with his supposed adversary than in hosting a forum for diners. 

Here's my view of the situation: The website owner posted an anonymous accusation that Spoon had not only made the accuser gravely ill through bad seafood, but that "many people" had had "similar experiences" there as well. Claims like that can pack a very scary punch for restaurant owners– and website owners should be mighty careful before they hand the (anonymous) accuser a megaphone. 

I asked the website owner whether he'd consider apologizing to the restaurant owner, but he dismissed that out of hand. Failing that, perhaps he'll decide to delete the vitriolic (and boring) email exchange and get back to the business of rating restaurants. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.