Court Slams Free Speech: Anonymous Yelp Reviews Under Fire

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Court Slams Free Speech: Anonymous Yelp Reviews Under Fire

A Virginia court has published a ruling that could change the landscape of online reviews forever. The ruling declares that Yelp, the popular online destination for business reviews, must divulge the real names behind seven reviewers who criticized a local business under anonymous monikers.

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The case started in the court of Alexandria, where Virginia-based plaintiff—Joe Hadeed, owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning—contended that a group of negative reviews published to his page were not written by actual customers. When Mr. Hadeed was unable to match the customer experiences up to those in his database, he complained to Yelp. After all, Mr. Hadeed felt, Yelp’s terms of service explicitly denounces using falsified reviews to inflate or deflate reputation. Yelp refused to take action, and so Mr. Hadeed had his attorneys issue a subpoena to Yelp that demanded the disclosure of the anonymous customers. The ruling out of Alexandria came down in favor of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, and Yelp was required to comply with Hadeed’s requests.

The original ruling relied on an interpretation of the First Amendment, which protects free speech. The court ruled that comments posted anonymously could not be verified, and therefore ineligible for protection under the First Amendment right. This decision was recently upheld by the Virginia Court of Appeals.

According to reputation attorney Aaron Minc, this ruling is a blessing for businesses: “If a business wants to challenge speech and can’t verify the source because the author is anonymous, that shouldn’t be the business’s problem, it’s the author’s because they refuse to publish something that’s verifiable.”

But Eric Goldman, Professor of Law at Santa Clara University, disagrees: “This is a terrible ruling. The court reduced its level of judicial scrutiny because the plaintiff alleged the reviews were fake, even though we don’t know if the reviews are actually fake or not.” That proof, says Goldman, should be a requirement. Because plaintiffs routinely claim any negative critiques are falsified, who is to stop a business from censoring reviews it finds unfavorable under this pretext?

Joe Hadeed is quoted in court documents as saying that he believed the negative criticism— which complained almost uniformly about unfair business practices and false advertising—originated from a small number of users who registered fake Yelp accounts with the purpose of slandering his business.

Yelp’s attorneys argued that each review came from a unique IP address. Attorney Raighne Delany, who represented Mr. Hadeed, contends that IP addresses are not adequate proof of unique identities: “how many IP addresses does one person have between all their devices? It would be easy to create a number of different fake accounts.”

Yelp’s attorneys further argued that the company actually conformed to well established rights laid out by its terms of service, and that its refusal to take action was within its powers.

The court ruling over rules those terms and sets a standard for the state to “unmask” a potentially libelous account if it is anonymous.

“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,” said Yelp spokesman Vince Sollitto 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.”

Judge William G. Petty penned in his 25-page opinion that Yelp reviews are generally protected by the First Amendment, and that anonymous speakers should not fear that the veil will be whisked away the moment a dissenting opinion comes to light. Judge Petty does not wish to give free rides to people who want to indiscriminately trash a business’s reputation, and added 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.”

The ruling seems clear: if you can’t prove you were there, you can’t bad mouth the venue. What do you think of this practice? Can anyone feel safe posting negative reviews on Yelp (or anywhere else on the Web) again?

Image Credits – Screenshot site

Pierre Zarokian
Pierre Zarokian is a veteran in search engine marketing. He launched Submit Express in 1998, which offers search engine marketing services and SEO tools. Ranking... Read Full Bio
Pierre Zarokian
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  • Mike Knight

    They should have something where the reviewer has to scan his receipt or invoice to be viewed as apart of the review. However they should be allowed to black out their name, and address.

    • Pierre Zarokian

      I agree…all review sites should have a way to also validate the reviewers’ identities and disclose it per request of the business. This would eliminate all fake and defamatory reviews!

  • Bret Williams

    It seems the Court overstepped by giving up the names of the posters. I think what the Court should have required is for Yelp to verify that the posters were legitimate and customers of the carpet cleaning business. If, after a validation by Yelp, if the plaintiff still feels wronged, then his suit would be against Yelp for validating false or libelous reviews.

    I’d like some pressure placed on review sites to make sure that reviews are by legitimate customers. Whether positive or negative, these reviews can have a huge impact on a business’s prospects. I suspect as many false accounts are created to promote businesses as there are to trash businesses — probably more.

    While I like autonomy with review postings, someone has to take the responsibility of validation to prevent slander.

    If Yelp et al don’t validate their posters, then what’s to keep us as consumers from filling suit alleging that these review sites mislead us into patronizing businesses with whom we would not otherwise deal.

  • Grant Barnard

    AWSOME!!! As a local contractor, I totally agree with this ruling. Fake negative reviews do happen regularly among competitive contractors. I myself was even blackmailed by an old lady and her family because she didn’t want to make the final payment. I even had her on a recorded phone call blackmailing me and Angies List wouldn’t do crap about it. Theres nothing right about a small contractor trying to make it in hard times and rich old bitter crazies taking full advantage.
    The world will be better without Yelp AND Angie. The reviews that show are of those willing to pay extreme amounts of money and therefore cannot afford to do the job properly.

  • White Rabbit InfoTech

    I’m glad this happened, and yes different Ip address is not a proof. Anyone can easily play with it. I’ll be even happier if they only allow verified users to post reviews, on not only yelp, but on other popular review websites as well. Thanks for the update.

  • Dave Minc

    I think that the last statement of the article is not correct. The point of the ruling is not that if you can’t prove you were there, you can’t bad mouth the venue. Rather, if you weren’t at the venue you can’t say that your opinion is based on visiting the venue. You can still publish an opinion if you don’t misrepresent the basis of the opinion.

  • Norm

    I’m not sure free speech was slammed here. It is not what they said that is being challenged, it is where they said it. Yelp is an online review site and presents it’s content as valid reviews of a local business. If the bar to confirm a review is legitimate is a unique IP address, that seems pretty low to me.

    It seems much more likely to me, that one person could successfully launch a campaign of falsified reviews towards a business that may have wronged them in some way, then it is that the business can successfully combat honest reviews by claiming they are falsified.

    I’m no lawyer, but I tend to think this is a positive ruling.

  • Amber

    This is especially important for business owners as Yelp “filters” its reviews and usually displays negative ones prominently at the top of the listing which is obviously a big problem if the negative reviews are fake!

  • James Halloran

    I actually approve the judge’s decision that such reviews do not fall under the first amendment. If you can’t verify a bad experience actually occurred, it shouldn’t be on the review site at all.

    Most people who had a bad experience want to be notified so amends could be made, but people who hide behind a masked identity seemed to just want to hurt the company and walk away unscathed. Of course, there’s the issue of the commenter’s privacy as well, but like I already said — if you make a complaint, why would you not want the business to know it was you?

    The only other reason I can think of for not wanting to be notified is the simple fact that you know what you’re writing is irreparable damage to their business. So, why should the courts not uphold the judge’s decision across the country?

  • Rick Vidallon

    I have been following these websites for some time now and have learned two distinct things:
    1) You either love or hate them.
    2) These types of websites are turning the Internet into an information cesspool.

    At first glance Yahoo and Bing do not rank these type of complaint websites as relevant in searches, not nearly as much as Google does. As a developer, I believe this speaks to inherent flaws in Google assigning so much value to back links.