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Yelp ordered by Virginian court to unmask negative reviewer group

updated 02:09 pm EST, Mon January 13, 2014

Court demands Yelp provide names of users giving carpet cleaning business bad reviews

Yelp must reveal the identities of several users that posted negative comments about a business, a US court has decided. The Virginia Court of Appeals sided with Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, and demands that the details for a group of anonymous users on the review service must be revealed, with Yelp claiming the ruling "fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the Internet."

Lawyers working on behalf of Joe Hadeed, owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, requested the identities of seven negative reviewers, reports the BBC, with the main reasoning being that he believed them not to be genuine customers, and therefore do not receive First Amendment protection.

In a statement, the judge agreed that "Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person's opinion about a business that they patronized," and that users have the right to anonymously discuss services online without worrying about identification over disagreeable commentary. The judge does clarify that "If the reviewer was never a customer of the business, then the review is not an opinion; instead the review is based on a false statement," and therefore does not receive such anonymous protections.




Speaking on behalf of Yelp, spokesperson Vince Sollitto claimed that the US had "adopted strong protections in order to prevent online speech from being stifled by those upset with what was being said," though the company hopes for Virginia to follow the lead of other states in adopting such measures. "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."

Such a decision by the courts could have a chilling effect on future Yelp reviews, which could leave some users wary of leaving negative reviews in future, for fear of being identified and being sued over their comments. According to the company blog, Yelp plans to appeal the ruling, and to "continue to fight for the protection and expansion of free speech for all Internet users."

Yelp came under fire in May last year over its reviews, with reports of reviews for businesses being hidden from view in order to benefit the service directly, such as removing negative reviews in order to attract advertisers. Yelp refuted the claims.



By Electronista Staff
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  1. climacs

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 09-06-01

    there is a notorious restaurant in Scottsdale, AZ owned by two very vindictive people who will be thrilled by this ruling. They seem to care a lot more about people who criticize them than they do about the food they serve.

  1. Leatherropes

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 07-02-11

    Why would a VA judge have any control over Yelp? Yelp is a CA company.

  1. pairof9s

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: 01-03-08

    Even by the judge's own words, why would anyone whose visited an establishment then left a negative review be worried? That aspect is covered by the First Amendment, as stated.

  1. DiabloConQueso

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-11-08

    I saw that episode of Kitchen Nightmares (or some related show) -- the only one where the host of the show ended up refusing his help and left instead.

    My opinion on this matter is that, while I understand Yelp's position on the matter (and of course they're going to take their own side), slander and libel are very real, potentially very damaging, and have measurable effects on sometimes innocent or faultless businesses.

    Yelp has kind of made it easy for people to libel a business and remain anonymous, and therefore, largely unprosecutable. It's also very difficult to separate actual, real, justified criticism from libel using anything more than loosey-goosey comparison to the other comments about the restaurant.

    I think Yelp's in a tough position here. "Freedom of Speech" does not mean "say whatever you want, whenever you want, free from responsibility and accountability." If someone libels a business, then that person has broken the law and should be responsible and accountable for their libel. Posting absolutely anonymously and potentially vindictively and falsely could be a very real problem that needs a very real solution.

  1. reader50

    Administrator

    Joined: 06-01-00

    This is a bad ruling. Apparently first amendment anonymity of speech first requires one to be unmasked, to prove one is a legit customer of the business reviewed. So one can only be anonymous after being unmasked, and proving one was a previous customer. Hope everyone kept their receipts handy, for all time. In case they decide to post a comment later on.

    If this ruling stands, anonymous speech is dead whenever an unhappy business asks. With no apparent consequences if they guess wrong.

  1. climacs

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 09-06-01

    and yet libertarian think tanks and lobbyists are fighting for the "right" of Corporation-Americans to donate millions anonymously to politicians, because FREEDOM http://www.alecexposed.org/w/images/4/44/Report_on_the_Goldwater_Institute_final.pdf

  1. azrich

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 04-19-10

    As with all our freedoms, the must be balanced with responsibility and public interest. The old 'yell fire in a movie theater' idea, the idea that you can own a firearm but not shoot it blindly into the air in metropolitan areas, etc.

    It's always the 'where to draw the line' that we will argue about. I personally don't think anyone should be able to post reviews without some form of verification going on. There are companies that will bring me 1000s of Facebook likes for a price, who is to say the next step isn't 1000s of bad reviews for the competitor of my choice?

    If you are going to create a service like Yelp then you should make an effort to keep it from being abused. Then again, if we as the public know any Yahoo (pardon the pun) can post anything on Yelp then we should consider that when reading the reviews.

    My friends on the right would say this is an opportunity for someone to create a much better Yelp type service and I have to agree. Online reviews STILL require some cognitive function by those that read them. I assume that most people are 10 x more likely to post bad experiences than great ones.

    This kind of reminds me of App store reviews where shills post 'best app ever!!!!' and other reviews that are canned responses. Use your noodle and you can find real reviews by real people. I think we (as people) just want to give up responsibility and use reviews to make our decisions for us sometimes.

    As to the comment comparing political money donors vs Yelp reviewers, I see the irony there. They are two different things entirely, but it is interesting.

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