Yelp Ordered to Reveal Identities of Seven Anonymous Reviewers
Yelp, the oft-satirized but unavoidable review site, has been ordered by the Virginia Court of Appeals to reveal the identities of seven of its anonymous users. The order stems from a lawsuit by Virginia-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning on the grounds that there was no proof that these users' negative reviews were based on real customer experiences.
Anonymous reviews are considered free speech and are covered by the First Amendment, Judge William Petty wrote in the decision. But. "If this underlying assumption of fact proves false, in that 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 of fact -- that the reviewer is writing his review based on personal experience.
As you might imagine, Yelp is not especially happy with this ruling, as it could potentially undermine the site's value to its users -- namely, their anonymity.
"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," a Yelp spokesperson told The Washington Times.
This isn't the first time the review site has refused to delineate between "personal opinion" and outright lying. It's also not clear what the implications for California could be. Virginia's standards for identifying potentially libelous comments by anonymous users aren't the same as other states', notes The Washington Times. Still, it's a blow to the idea that you can go onto Yelp, say whatever you feel like under the guise of anonymity, and not face any consequences.
And as Eater reminds us, last week Yelp announced the formation of a Political Action Committee and plans to lobby legislatures on issues like copyright laws and anti-defamation. This certainly won't be the last we'll hear about First Amendment rights as they relate to the privacy of online users ... whether they're telling the truth about a bad experience or just settling a grudge.