Court Rules that Yelp Critics Must be Identified

By Peter Bernstein January 10, 2014

Let me start by saying I am not a lawyer, and have no intention of playing one on the Internet.  Thus, the opinions expressed here should not be construed as a legal opinion. In addition, with the caveat that the ruling in a Virginia court concerning a case upholding a lower court ruling that the immensely popular Yelp review service must turn over the names of seven reviewers who anonymously bad-mouthed a well-known Virginia carpet cleaning company, Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, is narrowing defined, nevertheless this is one to put on your radar screen.

With a tip of the hat to an exhaustive article on the subject by the Washington Times, below are the reasons this needs to be on your watch list. 

A case in point to point at

A quick review of the particulars is in order. 

First, the case brought by Hadeed Carpet Cleaning owner, Joe Hadeed, said the seven anonymous users in questions were not real customers of his company, and thus violated Yelp’s terms of service regarding reviews. Yelp was issued a subpoena to turn over the names and a Virginia judge ruled that Yelp had to comply.

Second, the Virginia Court of Appeals agreed. And, this is why this is a narrow ruling since it only applies to bad reviews from non-customers. The court said the comments were not protected First Amendment opinions if the Yelp users were not customers which meant they were making false and libelous statements.  In short, Mr. Hadeed had a right to know the identity of the source of the bad non-customer reviews so that he could exercise his legal alternatives to pursue his accusers of breaking the laws regarding making false and damaging statements. The veil of anonymity in this instance trumps statutory protections regarding anonymous free speech.

Third, Yelp and civil libertarians objected on the grounds that this would have a chilling impact of people being able to use the Internet to voice their opinions.  As the article states:

 Paul Levy, a lawyer who represented Yelp, said the ruling might be concerning to consumers. “Hadeed really did nothing to justify the need for the identity of the Does in this case,” said Mr. Levy, who works at the D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen. “It’s going to make it more difficult for the marketplace of ideas to get valuable information about companies.”

Without going into all of the details about the ruling concerning things like, state versus federal laws on speech, whether Hadeed has sufficiently established that the seven were in fact not patrons, or issues over how technology was used to shield identities, the issue surrounding the validity of reviews is huge. What happens when the wisdom of the crowd cannot be trusted?  What are the rights of people to voice their opinions, and what measures are available to those who feel they have been victims of malicious attacks, and who is liable are all on the table.

These are non-trivial matters. In fact, it should be noted that The Washington Post filed a friend of the court brief in support of Yelp, as did Gannett Co. Inc., the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors.

To its credit, and as an avid Yelp user I appreciate this, Yelp does hide reviews that it suspects are driven by less than sincere motives. The challenge for all of the wisdom of the crowd based services like Yelp, Angie’s List, etc., is that because of anonymity, the review process is fraught with opportunity for gaming the system.  This is not just on the side of filtering out legitimate bad reviews from non-legit ones, but also the flip side of companies having employees, friends and family populating the review sections with positive ones. 

The content providers are very sensitive to the fact that their popularity is based on people looking at reviews, anonymous or otherwise, that are not merely there as part of a cat-and-mouse game of reputation burnishing versus malicious intent. People will quickly conclude that trusting a rigged deck is not something they value. 

All of this is an extremely complicated area of law, and the fact that it is working its way through the legal system is actually a good thing since establishing precedent is important. I happen, from first-hand flaming experience to be sensitive to Mr. Hadeed’s consternation of not being able to identify his accusers, especially if there is evidence that the source of the bad comments is from an individual or individuals who are not consumers of a product or service.  There is a reason why brand reputation management is one of the fastest growing businesses in the online world.

However, I am also acutely aware of the value of anonymous reviews and what would be a real diminution of people’s willingness contribute host reviews if they knew their identities would be revealed.  Again, going back to my own experience, identification has significant downside consequences regarding hate mail and possible retribution. 

How all of this ultimately plays out really is anyone’s guess. As noted, this is complicated. Since the U.S. is a country based on law, one can only hope even in a case that is narrowly defined that we end up with some clarity on the issues.   

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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