Yelp Reviewers Lose Privacy
January 13, 2014

Web Reviewers May Lose Anonymity As Court Forces Yelp To Reveal User Identities

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

The freedom from accountability on the Internet when it comes to anonymously bashing an establishment with a bad review is being threatened after a Virginia appeals court decision.

The court is forcing San Francisco-based Yelp Inc. to disclose the identities of anonymous critics, which could be the first step in taking the wild west, ungoverned part of reviewing out of the Internet.

The case began when Virginia-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning received seven negative reviews on Yelp. Joe Hadeed, who owns the company, believed these reviews were not actually from his customers, but instead could have been the competition trying to gain the upper hand in Internet presence. Hadeed hired lawyers to try and get Yelp to reveal the names of the anonymous critics so that he could clear the name of his business.

A Virginia appeals court decided that Yelp must comply with Hadeed’s request because he had sufficient reason to think the users may have not been customers.

"Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person's opinion about a business that they patronized,” the judge said in a statement. 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."

Paul Levy, a lawyer representing Yelp, said that Hadeed did nothing to justify the need to identify the anonymous reviewers. He said that this ruling is going to make it more difficult for the marketplace of ideas to get valuable information about companies.

Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for Yelp, said in a statement that other states adopted strong protections to prevent online speech from being stifled by those who were upset with what had been said about them.

"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," Sollitto said in the statement.

While some argue that not being able to post anonymously on the Internet infringes on the freedom of speech, others have pointed out how this lack of accountability is more advantageous to competition.

Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), told redOrbit in January 2012 that the Internet was like the wild west. He talked about how the lack of accountability when it came to reviewing an app allows people to hire out PR firms to bad mouth the competition to try and make the app look less appealing. Shapiro, who’s company heads the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), said that CES’ app received bad reviews on Apple’s App Store, but that in-depth research revealed that the negative reviews actually were unfounded and came from the competition.

“I didn’t realize that the danger for any developer that has any competition is the way apps are starred and rated,” Shapiro, author of the New York Times Best Seller “The Comeback”, told redOrbit. “Obviously it’s a free-for-all, so the competition can always down grade you. Wanna talk about a ‘Wild West’, that means the guy with a bigger gun can basically shoot down your claim in gold.”

So although the argument of free-speech can be made for the cowardly anonymous approach to reviewing a business, outside of the Internet there is always a face and a name to a voice.