Once again, the subject of free speech with regard to Yelp reviews has been brought up in court. A new decision has proven controversial because if the court is wrong (which is very possible due to an apparent lack of real evidence), Yelp users who chose to leave reviews anonymously will have heir identifies revealed for engaging in the practice that millions of others do on the Internet. The decision could set a dangerous precedent for other potential suits involving negative online reviews and anonymity.
Do you think people should be able to leave anonymous reviews on the the Internet without having to worry about their identities exposed? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled on Tuesday that Yelp has to reveal the names of seven reviewers who left anonymous, negative reviews of a business, which maintains that the names are critical in pursuing a defamation case against the reviewers over what it claims were false reviews from non-customers.
The business we're talking about is Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Alexandria, Virginia. It alleges that reviewers are in violation of Yelp's terms of service by not being real customers.
The Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria held Yelp in contempt for not complying with a subpoena, but Yelp argued that this was a violation of the First Amendment. Some would agree considering that the business has apparently been unable to prove that it "had legally and factually sufficient claims against each defendant."
Either way, the Appeals court was apparently convinced enough by Hadeed's argument.
It explains, "As of October 19, 2012, Yelp’s website displayed seventy-five reviews about Hadeed and eight reviews about a related company, Hadeed Oriental Rug Cleaning. These reviews were posted by various Yelp users, and a number of the reviews were critical of Hadeed. Hadeed filed suit against the authors of seven specific critical reviews. In these reviews, the authors implicitly or explicitly held themselves out to be Hadeed customers. In its complaint, Hadeed alleged that it tried to match the negative reviews with its customer database but could find no record that the negative reviewers were actually Hadeed customers. Consequently, Hadeed alleged that the negative reviewers were not actual customers; instead, the Doe defendants falsely represented themselves to be customers of Hadeed. Hadeed’s complaint further alleged that the negative comments were defamatory because they falsely stated that Hadeed had provided shoddy service to each reviewer."
You can find the full legal document here.
Yelp (incorporated in Delaware) also argued that the trial court erred "by asserting subpoena jurisdiction over Yelp, which is a non-party, foreign corporation." The court found that the service of the subpoena on Yelp's registered agent in Virginia provided jurisdiction.
The Washington Times shares a statement from a Yelp spokesperson:
“We are disappointed that the Virginia Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the internet, and which allows businesses to seek personal details about website users — without any evidence of wrongdoing — in efforts to silence online critics,” Yelp spokesman Vince Sollitto said in a statement. “Other states require that plaintiffs lay out actual facts before such information is allowed to be obtained, and have adopted strong protections in order to prevent online speech from being stifled by those upset with what has been said. We continue to urge Virginia to do the same.” Emphasis added.
The case is even more interesting given that Yelp has actually been battling fake reviews tooth and nail. If people are leaving fake reviews, as Hadeed is claiming, Yelp would supposedly want these eliminated. They just don't want to see their users' first amendment rights violated to get there.
In September, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that nineteen companies agreed to stop writing fake Yelp reviews and pay over $350,000 in fines.Yelp said at the time that it would like to work with law enforcement officials in other states to crack down on the practice.
Interestingly enough, it was a year ago that we were reporting on the Supreme Court of Virginia overturning an order for a Yelp user to change her reviews, which accused a contractor of stealing from her. It was essentially determined that the reviews were free speech until proven defamatory. So, pretty much the opposite of what we're seeing this week.
One of the latest reviews on Hadeed's Yelp listing comes rom Chris R. from Cumberland, Rhode Island, who writes, "I've not been a customer here however Joe Hadeed made headlines today by winning a law suit against yelp aimed at curbing free speech. The world (or the US for that matter) does not revolve around Hadeed carpet cleaning, Mr. Hadeed. Do not compromise Americans liberties (more than they have been already) because you are upset someone gave you a bad review on http://yelp.com. Oh, and enjoy the 1 star rating."
There's no question that defamatory comments online can hurt businesses, especially on a hugely popular review site like Yelp. But at what cost should businesses be able to try and make their cases?
What do you make of the court's ruling? Should Yelp be forced to turn over identities of anonymous users? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Image via Yelp