Yelp has been embroiled in a legal battle for the past couple years as a Virginia carpet cleaning service has sought to get the names of reviewers it alleges left reviews without using the service in order to name them in a defamation suit. Things haven’t always gone Yelp’s way. It lost in the initial trial and in appeals court, and Yelp was even held in contempt.
The Supreme Court of Virginia has now ruled of favor in Yelp, but not because of the main issues at hand, but rather because it determined a subpoena from Hadeed Carpet Cleaning should have been issued in California – Yelp’s home turf – rather than in Virginia.
“Although we were hoping the court would rule on both jurisdictional and First Amendment grounds, this is still an important win,” said Paul Alan Levy, a Public Citizen attorney, who represented Yelp in the case. “If Hadeed turns to California courts to learn the identities of its critics, those courts will require it to show evidence to meet the well-accepted First Amendment test for identifying anonymous speakers. And so far, Hadeed has not come close to providing such evidence.”
As usual, Yelp boasted about its legal victory on its official blog, where the company’s “senior director of litigation” Aaron Schur said:
Hadeed undermined its own customers’ free speech rights by trying to force Yelp to reveal their private information based merely on a hunch that they might not be real clients. Fortunately, the right to speak under a pseudonym is constitutionally protected and has long been recognized for the important information it allows individuals to contribute to public discourse. This is also why The Washington Post, Gannett Co. and other media outlets joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press amicus brief, while Google, Twitter, TripAdvisor and Pinterest, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others also argued in favor of our efforts to protect free speech.
Hadeed may still believe those reviews were not from his customers, but he has no evidence of this. In fact, several targeted customers also filed an Amicus brief reiterating that they were actual customers of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning and that their critical reviews were truthful representations of their consumer experiences. They feel strongly enough to come forward to stand by their reviews and share why they feel it’s important for consumers to be able to contribute their opinions online, even under a pseudonym if necessary.
Businesses that want to bully and intimidate customers who express displeasure with less than stellar consumer experiences should not be able to obtain their personal information without providing sufficient evidence that they have been wronged, which Hadeed failed to do in this case.
Meanwhile, Yelp itself is being referred to as the “billion dollar bully” in a documentary about the company’s alleged business practices, which recently raised funding on Kickstarter. It’s unclear whether or not the film will delve into this case at all, as its main focus is on allegations by business owners that Yelp holds positive reviews hostage with aggressive ad sales tactics.
Kaylie Milliken, the filmmaker behind Billion Dollar Bully, did put out a call for more stories about Yelp from businesses since hitting the funding goal.
As far as Hadeed goes, Yelp says that if the carpet cleaner wants to issue a subpoena in California, it’s “happy to continue the fight,” though in the same post, it advises businesses to avoid litigation and focus on customer service and use Yelp’s tools.