There has been an alarm in Yelp circles this week due to a court’s decision to order that the identities of seven of its reviewers be revealed. The decision follows a challenge by Alexandria, VA carpet cleaning company Hadeed Carpet, which protested about the posting of critical reviews that it did not believe were by real people. This could have significant effects on the legal status of anonymity elsewhere on the internet.
The decision was made by a Virginia state court of appeal after an initial refusal to comply by Yelp, which argues that it is trying to protect its users. Yelp now plans to appeal to the Virginia supreme court. Meanwhile, though the appeal court’s decision carries no formal legal weight outside the state, its existence could potentially be used as precedent in anonymity-related cases elsewhere.
This is not the first time that reviews on Yelp have led to trouble. Although critical speech is generally protected by the first amendment and by legal traditions that apply to journalism, it is obviously open to challenge if there is a suspicion that it is based on falsehood or has been written with intent to defame. So far, however, only one case has been won against a Yelp reviewer, and that case was overturned on appeal.
For businesses, inaccurate or malicious online reviews can be a big problem; however, a quick look at the reviews Hadeed Carpet is getting now will indicate why taking legal action might not be the wisest response. It might be good for businesses if review sites were more cautious about allowing the posting of suspicious review content; however, there are also downsides to such an approach and to this week’s decision, even for those not directly concerned about freedom of speech.
The biggest downside is this: if sites such as Yelp are put under pressure to reveal the real names of their contributors, this could see reviewing becoming far less popular and deprive businesses that work hard on customer satisfaction of a useful form of marketing. If applied retrospectively, it could also mean that any reviews produced by ghostwriters or a company’s own staff, back in the days before such practices were clearly identified as illegal, could come back to haunt them.
Most worried, of course, is Yelp itself, which sees its business model under threat. Although its appeal may be successful in this case, there are bound to be more challenges such as this in future; therefore, this will be an ongoing struggle.