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YELP critics can't stay anonymous, court rules

Published time: January 09, 2014 21:08
AFP Photo / Spencer Platt

AFP Photo / Spencer Platt

The popular review site Yelp must reveal the identities of seven anonymous users who left critical reviews of a local carpet cleaning business, ruled an appeals court in Virginia.

The case began in July 2012, when Joe Hadeed of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning filed a defamation lawsuit against the individuals who wrote negative Yelp reviews. Hadeed claims that the anonymous authors were not actually customers of his business, and his lawyers subpoenaed Yelp in order to reveal their identities.

After a judge in Alexandria, Virginia ruled in favor of Hadeed, the Virginia Court of Appeals recently upheld the ruling by a 2-1 vote, saying Yelp must obey the order.

Yelp allows users to sign up for the service and write reviews of local businesses, providing they were actually a customer of the business they’re reviewing. The service does not require users to register with their real names, but it does record their IP address.

According to Yelp’s lawyers, Hadeed did not meet the nationwide standards necessary to unveil the names of the anonymous users, but the court disagreed. Hadeed reportedly argued that many of the poor reviews could be coming from the same people making multiple accounts.

“Yelp said that all the posts had different IP addresses, but how many IP addresses does one person have between all their devices?” said Hadeed’s attorney, Raighne Delaney, to the Washington Times. “It would be easy to create a number of different fake accounts.”

In the court’s majority opinion, Judge William Petty said that while the First Amendment does apply to Yelp reviews, it’s contingent on the assumption that the author actually patronized the business in question.

“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. And 'there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact,’” Petty wrote, according to the Courthouse News Service.

While the lone dissenter, Judge James Haley, generally agreed with the majority, he disputed the notion that Hadeed provided enough evidence to suggest the reviewers were writing fake evaluations.

"A business subject to critical commentary, commentary here not even claimed to be false in substance, should not be permitted to force the disclosure of the identity of anonymous commentators simply by alleging that those commentators may not be customers because they cannot identify them in their database,” Haley wrote in his dissent.

For its part, a Yelp spokesperson told the Washington Times the company was “disappointed” in the ruling, which “fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the internet … without any evidence of wrongdoing.” The company’s attorney, Paul Levy, added that the decision might cause further uneasiness to consumers concerned for their privacy.

Last week, another online service, this time Facebook, became embroiled in a privacy lawsuit following a recent report that revealed the social network records everything an individual types on the service – whether they chose to post the words or not – in order to improve its consumer data stockpile.

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