Early last year, the Court of Appeals of Virginia saw a case in which Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Alexandria, VA subpoenaed Yelp so that the online review site would turn over the identities of and pertinent information about users who had posted negative reviews.
All Hadeed Carpet Cleaning wanted to do was assert and prove that its negative reviews on Yelp were not actually written by customers. So it sued the review writers for defamation and demanded that Yelp disclose their identities. The case soon became closely watched by industry stakeholders, consumer rights advocates, and local business communities – in major part because the case reflected the struggle to balance the interests of free speech (the voice of the customer) and protection from defamation.
A few days ago, the Virginia Supreme Court finally issued a ruling, saying that Yelp did not have to hand over private information about its users.
The court only ruled on procedural grounds, telling Hadeed Carpet Cleaning that it had to file suit in California, the state where Yelp is headquartered. But Yelp still framed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling as a victory for the company and for consumer privacy, with Yelp litigation director Aaron Schur saying that the case “highlights the need for stronger online free speech protection. And if Hadeed wishes to issue a subpoena in the correct jurisdiction of California, we are happy to continue to fight for the rights of these reviewers under the reasonable standards that California courts, and the First Amendment, require.”
Added Attorney Paul Alan Levy of consumer rights group Public Citizen: ““If Hadeed turns to California courts to learn the identities of its critics, those courts will require it to show evidence to meet the well-accepted First Amendment test for identifying anonymous speakers. And so far, Hadeed has not come close to providing such evidence.”
Meanwhile, Raighne Delaney, Hadeed’s attorney, viewed the decision as a “blow to Virginia small business.”
On the facts of the matter, we can only speculate, and it is only if and when Hadeed files suit in California that we might find out whether or not the anonymous review-writers were actual customers. But the case nonetheless serves as an example of why business owners shouldn’t resort to litigation as a way of addressing customer feedback. Besides, there are so many other, less controversial, and more effective ways of responding to criticism. No need to sue!
“Thanks to the attention drawn to Hadeed Carpet Cleaning through this court case (an ironic principle known as the Streisand Effect), many more consumers now know of the negative reputation this business has earned,” said Schur. “That’s why litigation isn’t a good substitute for customer service, and businesses considering using the courts as a weapon against their customers should consider responding to them with Yelp’s free (customer feedback) tools and providing improved service instead.”
If you need help or have questions about how to effectively manage online reviews and build your business reputation, give us a call and we’ll show you how to get started. You can also request a demo of ReviewTrackers and enjoy exclusive access to our award-winning customer feedback tool.