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The owner of a Hepburn Airbnb property, who pleaded guilty last year to harassing a former guest after she rated his luxury accommodation as “Just OK” is demanding internet giants Google and TripAdvisor identify several other guests who left allegedly defamatory reviews.
David Penman, the owner of Clifftop at Hepburn, has launched Federal Court action to compel the owners of the popular review websites to hand over “subscriber information for accounts associated with the defamatory posts” allegedly made about him or his business.
David Penman.Credit: Simon Schluter
Clifftop at Hepburn claims on its website to have been “crowned No.1 from 55,000 rental homes”, but alleges in court documents to have been the subject of a series of defamatory reviews, often made anonymously by guests.
Penman’s company is also asking for Google and TripAdvisor to release the names, phone numbers, email addresses and metadata associated with the accounts, along with internet protocol addresses, according to legal documents filed in the Federal Court.
The legal case, if successful, could have significant implications for the privacy of online reviewers and their ability to anonymously express opinions about a range of products and services on review websites.
While Google’s legal team is yet to respond to the application, a lawyer for TripAdvisor has asked the court to dismiss the case. The matter is due to proceed to a preliminary hearing in the Federal Court next month.
Penman declined to comment on the case when contacted by The Age, while his lawyer Zac Griffith from Harwood Andrews Lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
However, Penman has responded online to several of the allegedly defamatory posts on Google Reviews by warning of the pending court action.
“This is a fake review as this guest has never stayed with us. Another in a number of recent fake reviews aimed at damaging our brand as much as possible. The Federal Court claim that has already been filed will unearth the author of this review even if they are hiding behind a VPN [virtual private network],” Penman posted last week.
Clifftop at Hepburn is the property owned by David Penman at the centre of the court fracas.
The luxury villas at Clifftop at Hepburn cost up to $699 per night and have won a host of travel, hospitality and architectural awards, according to the business’ Airbnb page.
In May last year, Penman was fined $2500 without conviction in the Moorabbin Magistrates’ Court after pleading guilty to using a carriage device to harass a former guest, who said his award-winning guesthouse was “Just OK” while leaving a two-star review out of a possible five stars.
Inside David Penman’s Clifftop at Hepburn.
In an expletive-laden message left on the woman’s answering machine on May 1, 2021, Penman was heard saying: “You obviously didn’t do your research about the defamation case on Google … don’t bother removing your review, don’t bother offering to settle. I’ll see you in f—ing court, you better have a lot of money. This is not over, we’re not accepting a payout. We’re going to f—ing court and you will burn in hell.”
Magistrate Luisa Bazzani described the message and a series of threatening emails sent to the woman as “shocking, unfair and unnecessary”.
Penman was also placed on a diversion order in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in February 2022, after admitting to sending a barrage of threatening messages to another former guest in June 2021.
The guest had claimed in a review on the TripAdvisor website that his booking had been abruptly cancelled following a minor dispute over the price of a second room. Penman took exception to the claim.
The court heard, in one email, Penman wrote: “Tomorrow 25,000 people in Melbourne are going to know … what a scumbag you are”.
The court was also told that Penman contacted the guest’s employer and attempted to have him fired, before threatening to release his private details on Facebook.
In another email exchange, Penman threatened legal action against an employee of the Department of Education and Training who was forced to cancel a reservation at Clifftop at Hepburn in January 2020.
“We don’t tolerate reviews or social media comments from folks arising from situations like this. I will post our entire email chain publicly so that everyone can see what has occurred if any reviews whatsoever are written,” the customer was told.
Penman warned the woman he had reached a settlement in a defamation case against another guest who had left a negative review, and claimed the guest had incurred legal costs of more than $300,000.
“Our solicitor will be fully briefed on this matter today and given the way this matter is heading I propose to raise it with the Department of Education,” Penman said in an email in January 2020.
Lawyer Justin Quill, acting for TripAdvisor, declined to comment on the case, while Google did not respond to requests for comment from The Age.
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