Should people who criticize companies on sites like Yelp be forced to pay exorbitant punitive fees to the firms they review, just because of a small clause buried in the companies' terms and conditions?

Some lawmakers don't think so. The head of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, John Thune (R-S.D.), is expected to introduce a new bill Thursday that targets that practice, along with Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

The legislation, known as the Consumer Review Freedom Act, would ban businesses from bullying their customers as a way of insulating themselves from public criticism. If you think that doesn't happen, think again: One infamous case resolved last year saw KlearGear, an online retailer, charging a Utah couple $3,500 after they wrote some harsh words about the company on a review site. In the company's eyes, the pair had run afoul of its "non-disparagement clause" that barred them from "taking any action that negatively impacts KlearGear.com, its reputation, products, services, management or employees."

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The couple refused to pay up — perhaps not unreasonable, considering KlearGear had never actually delivered the products they'd ordered. KlearGear escalated by sending the case to collections, resulting in a hit to the couple's credit score. After years of litigation, a federal judge finally ruled in their favor, awarding them nearly $307,000 in damages.

"Online customer reviews have become an integral part of not just e-commerce but consumer choice everywhere,” Thune said in a statement. “This free market system, which empowers customers, cannot thrive if reviewers face intimidation against airing truthful criticisms."

The Internet Association, a Washington trade group representing firms like Yelp, Google and others, is praising the effort.

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"Creating a strong national standard protecting freedom of speech online is fundamental to the success of the Internet," said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association. "Meritless lawsuits filed for the sole purpose of intimidating consumers and stifling public debate must be addressed by Congress."

The bill's sponsors hope to move the bill to a markup before the year is out. A similar bill in the House was introduced in April.

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