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.