Posted January 10, 2014 10:42 am by with 5 comments

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anonymousIf you’ve ever posted a negative review online–especially on Yelp–then news from the Washington Times might give you cause for alarm.

A Virginia court has just ordered Yelp to hand over the names of seven reviewers who left anonymous, negative reviews on the Yelp profile of a company called Hadeed Carpet Cleaning. The owner claims that the reviews cannot be matched to any existing customers and therefore must be fictitious. On those tenuous grounds, a judge in Alexandria agreed with him.

Of course,  Yelp’s legal team is pitching a conniption:

“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.”

Meanwhile, the court is justifying it’s ruling:

…the court said that First Amendment rights do not cover deliberately false statements and agreed that Mr. Hadeed provided sufficient reason to think the users might not have been customers.

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 not subject to First Amendment protection, the opinion stated.

This is certainly a tricky case, but unlikely to set precedent in these matters–at least not outside Virginia. Virginia’s burden of proof seems to be a lot lower than other states, so Hadeed didn’t have to prove much, except that it believed the reviews were fake. Just about everywhere else, if you can convince a judge that defamation has taken place, you can force a review site to hand over the anonymous reviewer’s identity–it’s just that you have to really prove it’s defamation and not just something you don’t like.

At stake? Your ability to leave an anonymous review–something that review sites like Yelp thrive on–versus a company’s right to protect itself from fake & defamatory reviews.

My take? We probably need some compromise here. While I’m all for protecting a customer’s right to protect themselves from retribution, I also know that anonymous reviews are just as likely to be left by a competitor or disgruntled ex-employee.

Maybe it’s time to have some kind of “Verified Customer” attribution for Yelp.

  • There is nothing tricky about it. False reviews are not honest opinions and they are definitely not good for consumers, much less for anyone else. Yelp chose this business model. They have to accept SOME responsibility for being the facilitator of poison pen campaigns. The law protects them from egregious compliance requirements. You still have to go to court to get them to produce users’ private information.

    But from a business point of view Yelp does NOT want to keep finding itself accused of publishing false reviews. They need to be more aggressive about protecting consumer trust from this kind of manipulation. Their legal stonewalling could hurt them in the long run.

    • I agree, but the “tricky” part is setting the standard for revealing the identity of an anonymous reviewer. You can’t just violate a reviewer’s assumed right to anonymity, just because the company says they are not legitimate. Other courts have a higher burden of proof standard than what appears to be in place in Virginia.

      • Apparently the court was just enforcing a Virginia statute. I suppose Yelp can make a constitutional challenge to drag it out. Why they would want to protect fake reviewers, though, is beyond me. They’re not going to win any brownie points with the public over this.

        • I totally agree with Michael. I have always thought that reviews should be public. I don’t take seriously opinions of those who post anonymously. If you feel the need to say it publicly, you should put your name on it.

  • Daniel Hooks

    I’d love for all reviews, comments, etc to be public. But it’s probably just as easy to create a false identify on a review site, so I doubt much progress can be made there. And you definitely don’t want the government forcing this, that would get ugly in a hurry. Interesting stuff!