Are we approaching a time to say goodbye to anonymous reviews on Yelp?
Earlier this week, the Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled that online review site Yelp must unmask the identities of seven anonymous reviewers. The ruling came on the heels of the action taken by Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Alexandria, Virginia, in which the carpet-cleaning business subpoenaed Yelp in order to turn over the identities of Yelpers who had posted negative reviews.
The Washington Times describes the ruling as a decision that “could reshape the rules for online consumer reviews.”
Here’s how it all began. According to the Courthouse News Service: “After finding no record that the reviewers were actual Hadeed customers from a review of its customer database, Hadeed claimed that the negative reviews were false and defamatory. The business sued the John Doe authors of seven critical reviews and subpoenaed Yelp to learn the identities of the anonymous reviewers. Yelp repeatedly refused to respond to it, however, leading the trial court to hold Yelp in contempt.”
The decision was based on the fact that anonymous speech – while a key component of America’s First Amendment rights – isn’t entitled to constitutional protection if it is defamatory or deliberately false. To make his case, Hadeed Carpet Cleaning owner Joe Hadeed provided sufficient reason to think that the users leaving bad reviews might not have been customers at all.
In a majority opinion, Judge William Petty said, “Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person’s opinion about a business that they patronized. The anonymous speaker has the right to express himself on the Internet without the fear that his veil of anonymity will be pierced for no other reason than because another person disagrees with him. However, 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.”
In an analysis, Rebecca Rosen of the Atlantic thinks that a review site like Yelp having to out its anonymous users is not necessarily a bad thing. “If courts can craft a fair standard,” she wrote, “they’ll be able to balance the competing interests of free speech and protection from defamation on a case-by-case basis. If the court finds that you should be found, you’ll be found.”