Carbonite CEO Apologizes for Planted Amazon Reviews, But Bristles at Critics

Boston-based Carbonite, whose online backup service is the main competitor for Decho’s Mozy, has gotten some good publicity over the last few months for its tongue-in-cheek promotions on Jimmy Kimmel Live and other TV and radio programs. But the company is taking a public relations hit this week over a recently uncovered case of reviews planted on Amazon by Carbonite employees who didn’t identify themselves as such. The reviews were published three years ago—and it’s just one of many cases of people trying to game Amazon’s customer reviews—but they’ve attracted widespread publicity this week thanks to a blogger whose criticisms of Carbonite were highlighted Tuesday by New York Times technology reporter and columnist David Pogue.

I called Carbonite CEO David Friend yesterday to get his company’s side of the story. He didn’t try to spin or shift blame for the episode: He says it was “totally wrong” for Carbonite staffers Swami Kumaresan and Jonathan Freidin to post positive reviews of Carbonite’s service on Amazon without making it clear that they were Carbonite employees.

Carbonite CEO David Friend“We apologize for it,” says Friend, who also wrote to Pogue after Tuesday’s post, apologizing to Amazon visitors who may have been misled by the reviews. “We pulled the things down the day we found out about them,” he says.

The Amazon case was an isolated incident, Friend says. “Some people are alleging that this is a pattern of behavior,” Friend says. “It isn’t. It was just one thing that happened back when Carbonite had eight employees and there were a bunch of young guys who didn’t know any better…This was just two overenthusiastic employees who decided to post these things on their own. To be honest they thought it was cool.”

Since January of 2007, he says, Carbonite has had a policy requiring anyone affiliated with the company to disclose that relationship whenever they contribute to blogs or review sites. He says there will be no disciplinary action against Kumaresan or Freidin, since they published the reviews before the policy was put in place. “I’m not going to punish somebody for something they did three years ago,” he says. “Everyone has been well aware of the policy since it was put in place. Had anyone violated the policy since 2007, they would have been in trouble, but there have been no infractions since then.”

But while Friend is apologetic, he’s also a bit miffed about Carbonite’s treatment in the blogosphere over the past couple of days.

The controversy got rolling on Sunday when a blogger and former Carbonite customer using the pseudonym “Bruce Goldensteinberg” published a long post describing his frustrations obtaining technical support from the company. Goldensteinberg wrote that in early 2008, after experiencing a computer crash and then running into problems restoring his data from Carbonite’s backup version, he spent “literally hours on the phone” with customer service representatives and a member of Carbonite’s sales department. (He had opted not to pay Carbonite’s $19.95 fee for priority support—i.e., immediate access to telephone representatives.) Eventually, he was able to restore some of his data, and “after much complaining” he was offered a refund worth a year’s subscription, which he accepted.

In a search later to see whether other people had experienced similar frustrations, Goldensteinberg writes, he found the Amazon reviews by Kumaresan and Freidin. He became suspicious about the sources of the reviews, and discovered through more searches that both men work at Carbonite. The remainder of his post details his detective work and criticizes Carbonite’s actions as “dishonorable,” “unscrupulous,” and “brazen.”

Quite apart from the matter of the Amazon reviews—the impropriety of which Friend does not dispute—I wanted to know whether Friend thought Goldensteinberg had a legitimate beef with Carbonite’s custom service department.

He did not think so. “It says right on our website that we do not provide free telephone support,” Friend says. “If you want to talk to Carbonite for free, you can use text chat or e-mail. This guy called up and was told that the premium telephone service is $20—which is a lot cheaper than [telephone service at] Dell or Microsoft.” The conversation between Goldensteinberg and Carbonite’s representatives became heated, Friend says. “We finally ended up giving him an hour of help. And there was nothing wrong with Carbonite—all of the things were his issues. He has just never gotten over that.”

I e-mailed Goldensteinberg Wednesday afternoon asking for a response to Friend’s comment. Goldensteinberg wrote back: “Was the customer service experience with Carbonite great? Not at all. It was terrible. But I wouldn’t have gone to David Pogue, and he surely wouldn’t have written about this issue if the only thing I had to write about was bad customer service. Honestly, I only included the part in my review about the lousy customer service as a background to how I discovered the fake reviews on Amazon. Any attempt to divert attention from the main issue here…is a red herring.”

Indeed, the whole matter might have ended with Goldensteinberg’s post, if the blogger hadn’t contacted Pogue. The famed columnist wrote in his own blog “Pogue’s Posts” on Tuesday that Goldensteinberg offered the Carbonite story to him as an exclusive. Pogue recounted how Goldensteinberg had linked the reviews back to Carbonite. Then he came down hard on the company, saying:

“It doesn’t matter to me that Carbonite’s fraudulent reviews are a couple of years old. These people are gaming the system, deceiving the public to enrich themselves. They should be deeply ashamed, and I thank Bruce Goldensteinberg for helping me embarrass Carbonite’s sleazy practices as publicly as possible.”

Friend sent Pogue an e-mail response, which Pogue swiftly published as an update. Friend’s message said:

“These ‘reviews’ on Amazon from 2006 should have sourced the authors as Carbonite employees. I will personally see that the reviews are updated to disclose their employment affiliation. Had they been brought to my attention, they would have been removed long ago. We do have a policy about such things. I apologize to anyone who was misled by these postings.”

To which Pogue added his own postscript:

“That’s great that Carbonite is cleaning up its act—now, after it’s been caught. But Mr. Friend’s implication that he didn’t know about the phony Amazon reviews is a bit suspect. In fact, they WERE brought to Mr. Friend’s attention-in the comments for this Bits blog post from this past September. Mr. Friend himself replied. (His comment is #29.)”

The Bits blog comments to which Pogue referred were in response to a September 11, 2008 post on Carbonite and Mozy by Times writer Claire Caine Miller.  As Goldensteinberg explains in his own post from Sunday, he left a comment on Miller’s post under another pseudonym, “Joe,” in which he wrote, among other things, that “some of Carbonite’s reviews on are written by Carbonite employees—no joke! and of course they dont [sic] admit their conflict of interest.” (It’s the fourth comment in the series, if you want to check it out.)

Friend later contributed a comment on the same article. Pogue seems to be implying that since Friend had contributed a comment, he must also have seen the earlier comment from “Joe,” and that he must therefore have known about the planted Amazon reviews for several months before doing anything about them.

But Friend says he never saw “Joe’s” comment. “That’s not the way I post,” Friend says. “There are probably 20 or 30 mentions of Carbonite in the blogs every day, and our media person here cuts out the ones she thinks I ought to respond to and e-mails them to me.”

Friend told me he was unhappy about the way Pogue handled the story. Specifically, Friend said he would have liked to have the opportunity to respond to Goldensteinberg’s revelations before Pogue posted his piece.

“I wish Pogue had had the decency to call us before he started dragging up stuff from three years ago, without even a chance for us to reply,” Friend says. “I’ve been a subscriber of the New York Times for 25 years, and I’m really surprised that a reporter of his caliber would…sensationalize something like this without even seeking a comment from the so-called offender.”

In regard to Pogue’s postscript, Friend says: “I thought it was kind of snotty. He printed my letter explaining that it happened once, that policies have been put in place, that it hasn’t happened again, and that I apologized to everyone who was misled. Then he goes on with innuendo that I should have known about it, which is just false.”

I e-mailed David Pogue early Wednesday afternoon to ask for his responses to Friend’s comments. I haven’t received a response as of this writing; if I do, I’ll update this post.

Goldensteinberg, meanwhile, told me via e-mail that he thinks his September comment and later comments on the Miller post should have tipped Carbonite off about the problem: “Even accepting the dubious premise that Friend did not read all 28 comments, at the very least, [Carbonite customer service manager] Len Pallazola appeared twice on the thread, and responded specifically to the comment made by me, ‘joe.’  In my first comment as ‘joe,’ I mention the issue of the reviews on Amazon.  I mentioned it again in my 2nd comment as ‘joe. ‘ And finally, at comment 26, I mentioned how three favorable reviews appeared after Len’s posting, as being suspicious. Friend’s comment was #29.  At the very least, he had to go to the Web page where this thread was, and scroll down to the end of the comments (28 at that time), and then type in his name before posting.  This means he had comment 26 right in front of his eyes.   While I don’t mention the Amazon reviews in comment 26, I do mention fake reviews and Carbonite.  Any diligent CEO should have seen that, and it should have made a light bulb go off and investigate the matter of fake reviews further.”

And that’s the whole gory story of Carbonite, Amazon, and the New York Times—so far.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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