Court Orders Yelp To Fork Over Anonymous Reviewers’ Identities In Carpet Cleaner Case

yelpreview2You might remember, if you cast your mind back to last May, the case of a carpet cleaner who was perturbed by some negative reviews on his business’ Yelp page that he claims were written by competitors or other ne’er-do-wells who weren’t actual customers of his business. Yelp has been fighting to keep those reviewers anonymous, but it appears a court just put the kibosh on that fight.

A Viriginia appeals court ruled that Yelp must identify seven of the anonymous reviewers who left anonymous reviews on the carpet cleaner’s page, reports Courthouse News, which is a win for the business and an apparent loss for reviewers in terms of First Amendment rights — if they are in fact, customers of the business.

See, the situation is a bit sticky — he couldn’t prove they weren’t customers because they’re anonymous, and Yelp can’t prove they are without revealing to him who they are. If they aren’t customers and are making false statements, that might be defamatory. But if they are customers, they should be protected by the First Amendment.

It’s hairy, to say the least, but a judge has broken that standstill.

“Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person’s opinion about a business that they patronized,” a judge for the majority wrote. “But this general protection relies upon an underlying assumption of fact: that the reviewer was a customer of the specific company and he posted his review based on his personal experience with the business. If this underlying assumption of fact proves false… 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.’ ”

Anonymous Yelp Users Face Identity Disclosure [Courthouse News]

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  1. oomingmak says:

    I’ve always thought sites like Yelp should require real personal identities if you want to post reviews. I’m not sure how they should work it but when a business’s reputation and survival is possibly on the line there’s just too much abuse that can be done by people taking anonymous potshots.

  2. WoodsideParkBob says:

    It would seem the judge could protect the anonymity of people submitting legitimate comments and still determine if they were customers of the cleaners by requiring Yelp to identify to him the people submitting comments and by requiring the Carpet Cleaners to provide a list of its customers to him. The judge could then inform the Carpet Cleaners of the identity of only those who submitted comments who were not customers.

    • MarthaGaill says:

      That seems like the most reasonable solution.

    • FusioptimaSX says:

      makes the most sense to me, but I’m not sure if that is legal either.

    • kb says:

      The court could appoint a 3rd party to determine whether the reviews were legitimate customers posting about a bad experience, or false reports given by a competitor or others.

      Only the false reviews would then be made public, and litigation could proceed against them in open court.