Court Orders Yelp To Identify Anonymous Reviewers

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Court Orders Yelp To Identify Anonymous Reviewers
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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.

Also in September, a study from the Harvard Business School claimed that about a fifth of Yelp restaurant reviews were phony. This was after the company sued a site for selling fake reviews.

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

Court Orders Yelp To Identify Anonymous Reviewers
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  • http://jacksononthemoon.com Sharon Jackson

    This is about time!! I tried to help a local business who had received a terrible anonymous review. It was obviously a lie, it was obviously defamation. All the other reviewers were highly complimentary. I contacted Yelp who responded that “It is her opinion, so we are going to let it stand.”

    I have never used Yelp or trusted it since.

    I think if she had been expected to leave her name she would not have told the lies she told

  • angelo laurence

    If you are going to comment on other people it is only fair that they know who is making such comments. Often times people’s character suffer from malicious unsubstantiated comments by persons hiding under the cloak of anonymity. By identity, persons would be more careful and stick to facts knowing thay can be asked to show the evidence.

  • http://richardhughes.ca Richard Hughes

    It struck me that ‘YELP’ was first and foremost a business. Their reviews would drop considerably if there was the accountability factor in play.

    We should demand that commentators provide proper verifiable names. I require this on my blog and toss a great many who sign on as ‘Night Star” Brave Heart or such.

    I have noticed that the quality and credibility of the commenter is in direct correlation with whether or not they are identifiable.

    Surely the same should apply to ‘Yelp’

  • http://www.transgateslimo.com Younes Aitouazdi

    first when you own a business, you are able to understand the issue and the real effects of fake negative reviews that may come from a competitor or fired employee or even a website to pressure you to subscribe to their premium account. Yelp will hide (filtered) your positive reviews because they claim they are suspicious, but as soon as your upgrade your account to advertise with them, they list the filtered reviews, so suddenly, the reviews are not suspicious anymore. I agree with Hadeed’s right to know the users who leaves negative reviews, to make sure they really use his service or no, because it might be just Yelp doing that, at the end why a stratified customer who is willing to write a review that reflects his experience with a company want to be anonymous, the same thing apply for a positive review just for fairness. Thank you

  • http://www.networkingforus.com Din

    I never thought Yelp provided value. They count every negative review toward your score and will not count all the positive reviews even if they are legitimate. The customer service people say the they have automatic filters in place to detect spam. Every review that the “filter” discounted on my listing was a legitimate review from actual customers. I refused to pay monthly service fee to undo their “Filter” manipulation.
    I know of other business who threatened YELP with legal action because Yelp would count every negative review and would not count every positive review on their listing. In response Yelp stopped indexing their listings because according to Yelp they are not able to delete content. When Yelp stops indexing a listing it does not show up in searches anymore even though it is not deleted. You can still visit the listing if you have the complete URL address of the listing. Having them stop indexing your listing is better than paying them to get your legitimate positive reviews counted.

  • http://www.fakeflorists.com.au Gordon Craven

    Anything fake whether or not it is on the internet needs cleaning up and exposed. Check out fake florists at http://www.fakeflorists.com.au

  • http://janetheresephoto.com jane therese

    YES!!!!! it’s about time! I own a flower shop in a small town – we know most everyone and everyone knows us-I love what we do. We had one negative response from someone we know was made up just because of the time frame and low and behold-some guy wants us to advertise with him to stop negative reviews-we have a strong feeling it was him trying to generate his business-my husband and I were just talking about how people should put their name with their comment-if your going to claim your statement-put a valid name beside it-besides YELP does nothing to look into these false statements-its like EBAY sticking up for the buyer when there are hundreds of scamming buyers on EBAY-that’s another business that needs serious regulating.!! and regulating these comments and putting one’s name beside it-has not one thing to do with taking away with ones freedom of speech-quite the opposite!

  • http://none robert spanner

    You don’t have to even address the constitutional issue. Internet lawyers have developed a methodology for identifying unappreciated visitors to a website, like (but not limited to) hackers, for which there is an established procedure in the Federal courts: 1) file a Doe suit that alleges a Federal claim; 2) ask the duty judge to sign a subpoena addressed to the Internet service provider at the receiving end for the IP address of the offending poster; 3) trace it back to the ISP on the sending end for the physical identity of the sender; and 4) VOILA!, you know who did it.

  • http://www.empireconcepts.com/ Don Ticotin

    I do agree fake reviews should not be allowed and if a site permits them that entity should be liable for legal action.

    The complainer has to have solid proof that the reviews are fake before the identity of the reviewer could be revealed. We must not affect the first amendment.

    If this ruling is allowed to stand that would mean entities could go after legit reviewers to make their life very difficult in many ways including credit files, subscribing them to junk mail, or many other imaginable hardships. They could also blatantly file legal claims to create financial hardships for people who do not have the financial resources to battle them as the corporation might.

    It would also negate any value to laws that allow people to anonymously reveal when a corporation is thought to be doing something illegal since the risk could be so high it would effect them and their families.

    This court ruling is absolutely sublime and should be appealed and reversed.

    I would say otherwise if solid proof or at least enough enumerators were there to definitely say these were fake reviews. That does not appear to be the case judging by the ratio of good to bad and fact that site yelp which is being very strict on their policy did not think them to be.

    By the way many sites that offer guidance on services with reviews would no longer be able to operate since only positive reviews could be safely offered.

  • http://www.jjn-homecare.co.uk James

    The idea of customers being able to leave reviews to enlighten prospective new customers is a good one. However if the site hosting reviews is not independent because it is selling advertising to the companies being reviewed, then surely there is a conflict of interest.
    Couple that with the apparent ability for reviews to be manipulated as there is no accountability and you have a situation crying out for regulation.

  • Ed Cohen

    If Yelp collected not only identities of reviewers but sufficient information about the reviewer/customer’s relationship with the business under review, that would seem to be adequate protection. Put another way: Yelp should require the reviewer to provide details of his alleged transaction, e.g. date of order, place of order (if a restaurant, for example), even a credit card receipt. Without this, anyone–a competitor is the most obvious culprit, a friend or relative of a competitor, others–could bad mouth a business with impunity.

  • Ted

    Reviews should be real and made by real people. Why should the web operate under a different set of standards than print media, radio and television? What protection does a small business person have from untrue and/or malicious reviews by competitors?

  • WarwickD

    Agreed ClarkG. You see the truth. This is the exact model that McAfee use with their site advisor. They go back to the company & use mafia exortion tactics to extract thousands of dollars from the business to remove the site warning from their software. Isn’t it time people we put a stop to this tyranny? Where has the fight in you gone? You’re gonna need it to survive the future.

  • Rodney Chesnutt

    I think it is very chicken to leave an anonymous comment. But the way our government is turning into a Nazi and Communist control grabbing force now, we will soon be killed, tortured, or thrown in jail for anything they do not like. So we better try to be able to keep all the freedoms we have left and this is one of them. Do not give the government any more power. They have already stuck their nose into our sports with the drug use, and where in the Constitution does it give them any kind of power there?

  • Rodney Chesnutt

    The other side is I run a business also, and I would expect to know who wrote any comment about my business. And Yelp should have a system that would drop off a negative comment after may a year, if all the others were at least a 4 or higher. I have one comment rate me a one and it has stayed in the top 3 and will not move down so it brings all my 5’s down to a 3.5. That is not right. There should be a limit of maybe 25 or 30 and then they drop off. And if you are doing well it will show if not the other bad ones will still be there. I have about 20, 5 ratings and 1, 1 rating and it will not go away. And the bad thing is the guy has never met me, used my service, or had any contact with my business. He called for a repair and I could not get back in touch with him for some reason. Bad number, or I wrote it wrong I do not know. But I did try.

  • Mike

    As a restaurant owner, I have had to suffer dishonest reviews on websites. I can accept honest criticism, but when people are telling downright lies, why should they be allowed to remain anonymous?

  • Cindy

    Free speech in a review is fine but people must not hide behind anonymity. Online comments are powerful and therefore review business is full of tricks. Companies write reviews for themselves and against their competitors, customers seek free service in exchange to a good review (Example 1: “I see you recently got a bad review, I can write an excellent one if you give me free service” Example 2: “If you do not give me a better price I will write a bad review…”).

    Nowadays reviews are much to important than to give it to anonymous contributors. BTW there are several services around that offer monthly 5-10 good reviews for a fee of few hundred dollars. Review portals are not too much interested in controlling because their goal is to collect as much reviews as possible.

    Companies put their name and representants in front of public, why reviewers should be able to hide behind anonymity? Times will come when companies publish reviews about their customers :-) “Our most terrible guests of the month, here they are” …

  • Kristen Tibbetts

    As a biz owner I have joined the suit against YELP. If you do not agree to purchase their paid service then they delete good reviews and then allow false reviews. All of my real students reviews have been deleted and false negative reviews have been put in place of the deleted real reviews, because I wouldnt purchase YELP services. YES I believe if you’re man enough to complain or lie about a service with the intent of ruining a biz then you should be legally required to sign your name!

    • D.K.

      What lawsuit, what state, which Court District?

  • http://saheltech.com Alex

    There is free speech and there is defamation.
    For instance we all know that any services provided should be paid for. Yelp can just ask a proof of payment to confirm the review is left by an actual customer.

    Yelp can even go further and serve as a mediator to give good businesses a chance to redeem themselves.

    Honest people work hard to build a reputation by doing their very best to offer quality services. They should not be slandered by someone they never dealt with just because the competition wants to play dirty.

    Let’s be truthful and fair.

  • Doris

    Citizens should certainly be able to report suspicious activities. Many crimes are only solved because alert citizens are not afraid to uncover such crimes.
    No one should be chastised when believing that he or she is doing the right thing.
    If citizens have to be afraid reporting suspicions the criminals win.
    One has to realistically look at the possible outcomes. For instance, just like a business owner could never expect a 100 percent return on marketing efforts, a criminal justice professional surely can not assume that all tips, suspicions lead to fraudulent actions.
    Not reporting possible criminal activity could lead to additional crimes, unbeknownst to innocent human beings. It is much safer to follow up on “every lead” in order to eliminate that very real possibility.

  • http://www.willowpond.com.au Russell

    [Australia] When an error has been made – fair cop, but they should not be anonymous. The great majority of anonymous reviews are just made-up crap with no fact or basis. If someone really wants to make a complaint, then they should add their real name to it.

    Trip Advisor recently refused to publish my “right-of-reply” because I identified the the real (first) name of the author, whom I had identified from our booking details. It is OK for her to slander us (and it was slander with no fact whatsoever) but it is not OK for us to fight back!

    As far as I am concerned, these sites that let people post crap anonymously are participating in the slander/defamation and should be taken to court. However, most do not reside in our country and therefor get away with it as they don’t come under our laws.

  • Cindy

    Free speech is fine but people must not hide behind anonymity. Online comments are powerful and therefore review business is full of tricks. Companies write reviews for themselves and against their competitors, customers seek free service in exchange to a good review (Example 1: “I see you recently got a bad review, I can write an excellent one if you give me free service” Example 2: “If you do not give me a better price I will write a bad review…”).

    Nowadays reviews are much to important than to give it to anonymous contributors. BTW there are several services around that offer monthly 5-10 good reviews for a fee of few hundred dollars. Review portals are not too much interested in controlling because their goal is to collect as much reviews as possible.

    Companies put their name and representatives in front of public, why reviewers should be able to hide behind anonymity? Times will come when companies publish reviews about their customers “Our most terrible guests of the month, here they are” …

  • http://www.pestsupplywholesale.com Steve LaCroix

    Anonymous posts are always a problem. If someone posts something negative about me or my company, I want to be able to verify the complaint, and correct it. Many people will post something anonymously that they would never say to your face, and too many times this is done maliciously, for whatever reason. Ban all anonymous posts.

  • Sarah W.

    There was a time when unhappy customers actually verbalized their displeasure directly to the management of a business and allowed them an opportunity to make amends. Now people act as desk top bullies, in some cases blatantly lying in order to write a more exciting, attention grabbing review that will earn them elite status through votes for being “helpful”, “funny”, or “cool”.

    Yes, if you are going to go through the trouble of attempting to harm a businesses reputation via Yelp instead of doing the honorable and professional act of approaching the business directly, you should be required to give your name. A business should have the ability to verify that you are an honest customer and not one of these psudeo-adults who use Yelp as a social badge, acting as if it is their duty to alert others as to their opinions on everything from the drive thru experience at McDonalds to the subjective thoughts on their first experience getting a massage or whether their Vegetarian diet was successfully satisfied at a local steak house.

    Yes, people should have to own their words and be held accountable for them. Businesses can not make corrections to their customer service if customers do not approach them directly with specific concerns and are forced to waste time with these bogus internet reviewers. People who feel that a business is falling short should have the back bone necessary to simply speak to someone rather than hide behind a computer monitor like a common coward.

  • http://hanksacservice hank hodes

    yelp only gravitates to negative reviews, they have allowed third party statements, who are not my customers. i hate yelp, i even pay them 500/ month and cannot cancel.

  • http://hanksacservice hank hodes

    yelp sucks and allows 3rd party reviews

  • http://www.gpsinsight.com Billy Barker

    I think this is good. If people want to post comments/reviews in a public place than they shouldn’t be able to hide behind ‘anonymous’ profiles.

  • eggsonthesmile

    When creating a fart, one should smile unabashedly and slyly, knowing the warm of the pants is in your hands… but only if you choose to put your hands there in the first place! As the growling onion, one must ponder if Chris Crum knows how to go GRRRRRRRRRR! in the manner that I do. It’s all in the technique, young grasshopper. Add substance and poise to your addendum.

  • Vince

    I would have to disagree that this affects free speech.
    You still have that right, but you don’t have the right to be anonymous while doing it.
    This no different than talking among a group of people, you can say what you want, but everyone knows who said it, regardless if they know your name or not.
    If you were left with an impression strong enough to leave a review for a company, good or bad, you should stand behind your statement. If your statement is accurate then you would have nothing to fear.
    But then again, this is my take and opinion on the situation.

  • http://www.lawyernortheastphiladelphia.com bob

    I agree that in order to be sure that YELP reviewers are actual customers there needs to be some verification process,

  • Jeff

    Absolutely people should be required to identify themselves online if they are going to post any type of review, positive or negative. Why should somebody be allowed to post negative comments about a business and not allow the business to research and respond? So many sites just allow people to say what they want, true or not. How is this good for businesses? If it’s the truth you shouldn’t have to hide behind an “anonymous” monicker. Too many people are allowed to trash businesses with no recourse for the business to find out if the complaint is genuine, seek a resolution, or if its not true get it deleted. People aren’t stupid. They no complaining will possibly get them what they want whether they deserve it or not and competitors can say what ever they want and get away with it. It’s not right and I hope this court decision stands.

  • Jeff sandefur

    Any person commenting should have to reveal their identity because the only person who would object to this would be someone trying to slander another business so their business would get the customer. If you really disliked a service or product you wouldnt worry about any retribution bevause you wouldnt use them again anyways

  • http://DiversifiedResources.us Joel

    Now what’s the name of the business? What are the reviews? Have they been proven false? Is this America?

  • miek

    Solution is simple:

    Put Anon reviews at the bottom and Identified reviews at the top.
    Anon reviews would have a review value index of .12 while identified reviews have a review value index of .88

    This means that the Identified reviewer has 8 times more influence than anon users.

  • http://permaculturedesigntraining.com/ Eva

    In terms of a practical understanding of nature, compared to
    the bees we are but infants. estimates that 40% of rivers and streams are unfishable
    and unswimmable and 50% of lakes and ponds are unfishable and unswimmable.
    The birds are singing, and no traffic can yet be heard.

  • http://tsiknarishair.com.au George

    If the posting of reviews is conducted and malice intent is obvious or the result of these reviews, then definately the reviewer’s identity should be revealed.

    However if it is used simply as a tool to positively advertise a business and increase the SEO power and ranking of a website, identities should not be revealed as it then open to all website owners to use the same strategy.

  • D.K.

    765 complaints to the FTC about Yelp,
    1100 complaints to BBB
    Extortion, mafia, Phony reviews, false one star ratings,
    Hadeed v. Yelp false reviews
    Levitt v. Yelp false reviews extortion …etc

  • David Porterfield

    Yes. We contacted Yelp and asked them if we could write a comment on a bad review as you know there are always two sides to everything. They refused and told us we would have to join their group and post a personal picture and their website before we could even be considered for a reply.
    This is a crooked company they would not post our customers good comments only the bad.
    Thank you
    David Porterfield

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