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.”
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.