This week, a Virginia judge ordered a Yelp user to change a negative review. Before we get into the specifics, just think about that for a second. Do you use Yelp (or any other service for that matter) to discuss your experiences at restaurants or with other businesses? Have you ever left a negative review of a business? Depending on what you say and how the business in question reacts, that freedom of speech thing you've grown so fond of may not be enough to hold up in a court of law.
Should courts be able to make people change what they say online? Tell us what you think.
On the flipside, however, as a business, should you not have legal recourse for accusations you believe to be false, in order to protect your business' reputation, and avoid losing potential customers? It's a tricky debate, and any legal rulings could have far-reaching implications for future cases. On the one hand, ruling against the reviewer risks opening the floodgates for such suits which could ultimately cost average consumers not only their voice, but unaffordable legal fees. On the other hand, ruling in favor of the reviewer could leave room for all kinds of smear campaigns from disgruntled consumers or even ex-employees of businesses who did not leave on the best of terms. It could, as one business claims, cost said business a great deal of money in lost customers.
Now, let's look at what we're dealing with here. Jane Perez was sued by Dietz Development, a building contractor, who claims to have lost business because of her negative postings on sites like Yelp and Angie's List. He sued for $750,000, and claimed that he lost $300,000 because of her words.
What was so bad about the reviews? Perez reportedly indicated that the company had caused damage to her home, trespassed, and even stolen jewelry. According to reports, the judge granted a temporary injunction, and ordered Perez to change parts of the Yelp review - specifically the part about jewelry theft, which had said, "I found my jewelry missing and Dietz was the only one with a key." She was also reportedly ordered to nix a part mentioning a previous lawsuit that Dietz had filed.
Mail Online talked to Perez's attorney, who is quoted as saying, "Obviously this is very chilling to free speech because folks are going to be very concerned and afraid to voice their opinions about businesses...We believe that these sites are the forum where we should be encouraged to write about our experiences with businesses."
The Dietz party maintains that its reputation is at stake, and that accusations are false. Mail Online also quotes Deitz's lawyer as saying, "A bad review is one thing. But, it was a bad review that accused him of theft. And in this residential construction, commercial construction business - that’s a devastating accusation."
You can read the entire 27-page legal document here, courtesy of The Washington Post.
It's not really about this one case though. It's about underlying theme, which is also woven throughout a growing number of similar complaints, not limited to Yelp, but to the web in general. We live in an era when anyone with a computer or a mobile phone can easily jump on Facebook, Twitter, or countless other sites, and say whatever is on their mind in any given moment. Not happy with the way your burger was put together at McDonald's? You may wish to reconsider calling the worker who gave it to you names, as there is always a chance that the corporation that employees them decides it doesn't like the way you're representing their business.
Sometimes name calling is name calling. Sometimes accusations are accusations, but the lines aren't always that clear, and sarcasm and snark don't always play as well as we hope they do when in written (or typed) form. Believe me. I've had plenty of sarcastic comments in articles throughout the years that simply didn't land. A scathing metaphor about a person or business risks being taken as fact, and if the person or business on the other end of that scathe, decides to pursue legal options, well, they may just have a case.
Social media, by the way, is working hard to eliminate online anonymity. In many cases, it won't be hard for a complaint to put a name to the comments.
As far as Yelp reviews go, there are plenty of business breaking the "rules" too. There have been enough businesses buying positive reviews on Yelp that Yelp had to start slapping alerts on business profiles who had been "caught red-handed" (Yelp's own terminology). So, that's one way businesses had of countering bad reviews that Yelp has essentially taken away (granted, with good reason).
Some businesses, rather than suing or paying for good reviews, are simply having fun with the bad ones. I prefer this approach. San Diego’s Craft & Commerce is recording their bad Yelp reviews, and playing them for customers while they're in the bathroom. Seriously. Awesome idea.
Unfortunately, it's quite likely, especially in light of the Perez case, more companies will take the legal route, rather than the bathroom humor route. Of course, you do have to get the customers in the door before you can get them in the bathroom.
On a semi-related note, there has been a lot about Google's handling of reviews in search results of late, as the company faces potential antitrust lawsuits from the FTC and EU. Yelp has been a big opponent of Google for some time.
This whole thing seems to be validation that people are finding Yelp reviews just fine, regardless of how Google is treating its own search results. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, a regular critic of Google's business practices, was recently quoted as saying that Google has some "evil" business practices. He thinks Google shouldn't be putting Google reviews ahead of other reviews (like Yelp's).
Yelp, by the way, gets somewhere around 84 million visitors a month, and has 22 million reviews. So many people use it that its reviews are often the basis of lawsuits.
What do you think? Should the courts be determining what people are saying in online reviews? On social media? Comment here.