Court Forces Yelp to Reveal Anonymous Reviewers’ Identities

Anonymous trolls beware. In what the Washington Times calls “a decision that could reshape the rules for online consumer reviews, a Virginia court has ruled that the popular website Yelp must turn over the names of seven reviewers who anonymously criticized a prominent local carpet cleaning business.”

From the Courthouse News Service,

Yelp must identify seven anonymous reviewers who left negative reviews for a carpet-cleaning business, a Virginia appeals court ruled.
With approximately 102 million unique visitors every month, the Yelp website allows users to post and read reviews of local businesses. Anyone who posts a review is required to have actually been a customer of the business in question, pursuant to Yelp’s Terms of Service.

To review a business on Yelp, a user must register and provide Yelp with a valid email address. While Yelp does not require users to register with their real name, it records the IP address of every user who posts.
In July 2012, Yelp displayed 75 reviews of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Alexandria, Va., a number of which were negative.
After finding no record that the reviewers were actual Hadeed customers from a review of its customer database, Hadeed claimed that the negative reviews were false and defamatory.

The business sued the John Doe authors of seven critical reviews and subpoenaed Yelp to learn the identities of the anonymous reviewers. Yelp repeatedly refused to respond to it, however, leading the trial court to hold Yelp in contempt.
On Tuesday, the Virginia Court of Appeals agreed, 2-1, that Yelp must identify the users accused of defamation.
While “an internet user does not shed his free speech rights at the log-in screen,” the right to speak with anonymity is not absolute, Judge William Petty said for the majority.

The Virginia Legislature has developed a detailed six-step test, codified at Section 8.01-407.1, for anyone seeking to uncover the identify of an anonymous internet user. The court rejected calls to find the law unconstitutional, saying “we cannot identify a clear, palpable, and free from doubt infirmity.”

I am aware of several cases in the Portland area, where a restaurant has been the subject of a vendetta by ex-employees upset over the sale of their business, revenge after being fired, etc. Whether the poor reviews are justified or now, restaurateurs will know that they can fight back and sue the reviewers for libel – at least in Virginia.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. zumpie says

    Or the business could just conduct business in an ethical, professional manner and treat its employees with respect. This is also a very dicey ruling that I suspect we might well see overturned. To say nothing of the myriad of easy ways around this: just don’t use your own IP address, post the negative reviews from a variety of public connections, use fake email accounts, etc. Verrrrrryyyy simple.

    • says

      I suspect the average Yelp user doesn’t know how to spoof IP’s, use a VPN, etc. Fake email accounts accomplish nothing. If someone gets a court order, all they need is your MAC address, which most people aren’t going to understand how to spoof.

      It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out. Look at all the effort Google is making to eliminate anonymous commenting. It seems to be a trend.

      • Madeline4994 says

        I have actually tried to register my identity on Yelp when I have posted reviews and had trouble – I guess I must be a computer doofus.

  2. Rachel schoening says

    Right, Zumpie, all disgruntled employees that write bad reviews were treated with disrespect by their employer, and all of said business owners could have avoided having disgruntled employees had they only run ethical businesses. So simple.

    • zumpie says

      Actually there IS a fair amount of veracity to that, I’ve yet (in any capacity) to work for a restaurant that didn’t bend or break the law somewhere. It’s precisely why they get sued a lot, themselves. Also, if you don’t want negative things said about you, don’t run a direct to consumer business

  3. mczlaw says

    Well, zumpmeister, truth is a defense in a defamation suit so the truth-speaking, anonymous Yelpers should have no qualms about their identities being revealed so they can defend the business owner’s frivolous suit on the merits. Maybe Yelp will pick up the cost of their defense. Hahahahahaha.

    Let’s face it. Yelp loves anonymity because it allows them to post scurrilous garbage that others will read and react to. More hits. More $$$. Bottom line.

    Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote a brilliant op-ed piece that appeared in many newspapers in the spring of 2010. I still have the crumbling page from The Oregonian. As Pitts noted, when back and forth Internet banter began to gain popularity, “it must have seemed an inspiration kissed by the spirit of Jefferson.” The truth, it turns out (as Yelp exemplifies), is that anonymous message boards “have inadvertently licensed and tacitly approved the worst of human nature under the guise of free speech.” Here, here. Link to the whole column is here:

    Let’s hope the Virginia opinion is the beginning of the end of unaccountable “reptilian” commentary on public internet forums. Yelp is a great first step.

    –mcz
    (Michael C. Zusman)

  4. pdxyogi says

    After writing a 100% factual review of a local place, the owner contacted me and attempted to extort and blackmail me into having it removed.

    • mczlaw says

      Are you suggesting your experience justifies anonymous comments? Be interesting to hear a few more details of your story. If attempted blackmail or extortion were truly involved, I hope the police were called. Short of that, do you agree or disagree that it’s fair for a commenter to be held accountable for what they write?

      BTW, you notice how Eater suddenly had no horrid defamatory attacks on its Portland site once commenters had to identify themselves? I’m sure Eater is paying for it with reduced click-throughs. I’d bet they’re not going back to the old way though.

      –mcz

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