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Yelp has played fast and loose since its inception.  They've allowed an ungoverned, unanswering, anonymous group of vigilantes to trash commercial entities and retail businesses without accountability.  Many businesses have suffered with no ability to confront unfair reviews or receive proper remediation from Yelp.  Rumors have been rampant that problems "go away" with the purchase of advertising on the site.

Today's ruling in a Virginia's Appeals Court (2-1) may have changed the game.

The Appeals Court has affirmed a lower court decision that Yelp must identify anonymous reviewers who left negative reviews for a carpet-cleaning business after finding no record that the reviewers were actual customers following a search of company records.  Yelp must identify the seven anonymous reviewers and, in turn, the carpet-cleaning business, Hadeed Oriental Rug Cleaning, will then be allowed to sue the Yelpers for defamation.

The business had attempted to sue the authors of the 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.

"Yelpers" must only provide an email address to join, but Yelp records the IP addresses of users as well.

Judge William Petty, speaking for the majority of the Appeals Court, pointed out that even though a Yelper “does not shed his free speech rights at the log-in screen,” a review is still based on an “underlying assumption of fact.”

Deliberately false statements are not covered by the First Amendment and the court decided that Hadeed provided sufficient evidence that the Yelpers were not

This is good news.  I work with a business owner who is plagued with reviews such as these: no record of customers' appearance, business transacted or fees exchanged. This represents a welcomed change, indeed.

This puts reviewers on notice that they can be held responsible if they knowingly defame businesses which, I suspect, many do (even as paid shills).

It also puts Yelp on notice that they can't plead ignorance or immunity regarding to reviewers' anonymity.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I have mixed feelings about this (12+ / 0-)

    I agree that people who write negative reviews who weren't even customers should be subject to legal action. However, I would be fearful that people who have been customers, and had a bad experience, will be reluctant to write bad reviews unless a "proof of purchase" becomes a legal safe harbor.

    "let's talk about that"

    by VClib on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 06:46:19 PM PST

    •  Really, (5+ / 0-)

      all you have to prove is that you were a legitimate customer.  Beyond that, it's very subjective...and Free Speech protections apply.

      Unfortunately, many reviewers are untraceable, by design (and/or improper remuneration).  Their identities should be discoverable and their motives actionable, if necessary.

      Might this cut down on unnecessary flaming reviews?  I certainly hope so.  Yelp rewards the most prolific Yelpers with perqs and parties without regard to the quality of their work.  For Yelp, it's a good deal.  For business owners, it's a nightmare.

      Nobody doesn't wish he had more education.

      by john07801 on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 06:58:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I dunno, it seems like the idea of "free speech" (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tonedevil, Lost and Found

      includes the right to lie.

      Heck, if the courts grant Fox News that right, why shouldn't it apply to the rest of us?

      •  It does and I think a court already affirmed this (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        IIRC, there was a lawsuit brought against a Fox affiliate TV station by an anchor in (of course!) Florida a few years back. The anchor's claim was some sort of wrongful termination (again, IIRC) based on the instruction by that anchor's superiors to air a story the anchor knew was factually untrue. That anchor was fired, sued, and lost, with the court essentially affirming that Fox and its affiliates were under no obligation to be truthful in their broadcast, citing 1A rights to lie.

        I clearly recall something like this going down; can someone fill in the details? I might be wrong; I hope I am, in fact, as IIRC it was a very ugly ruling with ominous precedent at the time.

      •  There is lying and then there is slander (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        UnionMade, Tonedevil, geekydee

        You can lie all you want as long as your lies don't have a direct negative impact on a specific individual causing them harm. When you write negative reviews on YELP when you haven't even been a customer, or worse because someone is paying you, that is cause for civil liability. YELP should not be facilitating that kind of activity on its site.

        The facts in the Fox case aren't relevant to this.  

        "let's talk about that"

        by VClib on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 07:47:34 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Exactly! Kind of like (0+ / 0-)

          you can swing your arms all you want, but don't hit anyone or you will get in trouble...

          ''The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.'' - Justice Hugo L. Black of the Supreme Court

          by geekydee on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 06:08:04 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I've seen this kind of thing (8+ / 0-)

    for Restaurants I go to. Reading some negative reviews I think at best the person is mistakenly talking about a different restaurant and at worst they are outright making shit up. Because their account simply does not match any experience that is possible at that restaurant

    The biggest flaw I see in Yelp is that users can influence others' reputations without having to worry about their own. There's no system in place for rewarding accurate yelpers while punishing inaccurate ones. Everyone is assumed to be perfectly awesome!

    [] Useful [] Funny [] Cool

    "In text, use only a single word space after all sentence punctuation." - Oxford Style Manual, Oxford University Press, 2003.

    by shaggies2009 on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 06:59:14 PM PST

    •  My response to this problem (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      shaggies2009, quill, Kevskos

      is to let reviewers rate others' posts.

      Some reviews are so inane, unfair or inappropriate that other reviewers could easily put the author in his place.  Ultimately, they might weed out some of the major losers.

      Yelp's response?  Crickets.  Obviously, they have no interest in the accurate rating of businesses.

      Nobody doesn't wish he had more education.

      by john07801 on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 07:12:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Yelp is a parasite. (10+ / 0-)

    I NEVER use them.  I believe claims that they're basically into extortion - withholding positive reviews for pay.  Cyber mob tactics.  Fuck 'em.

    Can you call yourself a real liberal if you aren't reading driftglass?

    by CJB on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 07:22:19 PM PST

  •  Doesn't this decision cut both ways? One of (8+ / 0-)

    the biggest problems with yelp is actual restaurant owners posing as customers and writing glowing reviews of their own food/service.

    •  Yes, you're right. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      john07801, Kevskos, Tonedevil

      If the writers/commenters/bloggers are anonymous, what happens? Some restaurant owner writes positive reviews of his own place. Maybe he convinces his employees to write good things. And maybe they write bad reviews of the competitor across the street (cockroach in my food! really slow service! rude waiter! food was cold!).

      Some rants or raves might be legit, I suppose. But it just seems like a set up. And if Yelp is telling people they can spend money to advertise and get guaranteed good reviews (or whatever), that smells like extortion.

      "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

      by Dbug on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 09:33:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  This is why I pay no attention to Yelp reviews. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:


  •  Oh indeed, FSM forbid that people should be (7+ / 0-)

    protected from SLAPP suits when they speak out to warn others about shitty products or service. If one uses YELP in decision making one is supposed to have enough brains to throw out the best and worst reviews, now it'll be like e-bay, where one cannot even remotely assume that anybody's rating is bonafide because of all the pressure they put on people posting critical ratings or reviews.

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Thu Jan 09, 2014 at 09:29:26 PM PST

    •  I didn't respond to your post (0+ / 0-)

      because I didn't understand your acronyms.  If "FSM" means "Flying Spaghetti Monster" and  "SLAPP" means "Sounds Like A Personal Problem," I can answer.  (I had to look them up.)   Communication is vital.

      You miss the point of the lawsuit and my diary entirely.  Yes, one can rate businesses on their products and services.  In fact, that's the alleged purpose of Yelp.

      It's when a reviewer has not used the business personally and not experienced their services that their review is objectionable and, perhaps, actionable.

      One should have enough brains to know when a business is being broadsided by an unfair Yelp reviewer.  But, of course, only the retailer can know if the Yelper has actually been a customer and the sentiment has credibility.

      Nobody doesn't wish he had more education.

      by john07801 on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 12:58:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  SLAPP means (4+ / 0-)

        But, of course, only the retailer can know if the Yelper has actually been a customer and the sentiment has credibility.
        So here's a situation (true story) - I call a carpet cleaning service, they make an appointment, I arrange to stay home, they come, and then they say that they cannot clean this kind of carpet because it is too dirty (no joke). I clearly cannot prove I am a customer, there was no transaction. They are a big chain capable of SLAPP. What do you want the outcome to be?
        •  Perhaps you (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          MKSinSA, Kevskos

          or the original commenter could have used that full definition rather than the acronym.  How would I know it?

          Why would the carpet-cleaning company sue you?  They gave you their professional opinion, CHARGED YOU NO MONEY and left.  They made the trip to your house at their expense.  That's their business.  Do you now want to downrate them on Yelp?

          So, call another cleaning company or just throw the rug away and learn how to live a cleaner life.  Just a suggestion.

          Nobody doesn't wish he had more education.

          by john07801 on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 01:33:19 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  What your story actually demonstrates (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          is that the cleaning service was honest enough not to take your money, when they knew they would not be able to clean the carpet.

          And you would give that a bad review?

          •  Or that they didn't think they would net (0+ / 0-)

            enough profit per hour doing that size job on that carpet correctly.

            That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

            by enhydra lutris on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 11:39:20 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  yes and (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              enhydra lutris

              my question is - as I didn't end up being a customer does that mean I am not allowed to write a review of this so that other potential customers evaluate this possibility and don't bother with them?

              •  I agree you should be entitled to write a (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                review, I was simply presentng an alternate view of why they might nothave wanted the job.

                That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

                by enhydra lutris on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 01:58:37 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

              •  What's to prevent your writing a review (0+ / 0-)

                that says exactly what (you said) happened? I don't see the problem here. As has been pointed out, the outcome was ambiguous--OT1H you didn't get your rug cleaned, OTOH they didn't do a bad job & then charge you for it.

                These days there is no substitute for gathering evidence every time you deal with a service provider, just in case they try to shirk responsibility for a bad experience. If you have some sort of confirmation (written, e-mail or voicemail) of an appointment to clean your carpet, and then requested a written statement (or made a voice record with your smart phone) that they declined to clean the carpet, your review to that effect would be a classic Joe Friday ("nothing but the facts") & would surely hold up vs a SLAPP--whereupon you sue them for time, trouble & legal fees over a frivolous filing.

                The greatest trick the GOP ever played was convincing the devil they had a soul to sell.

                by Uncle Cosmo on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 02:42:09 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  "what's to prevent" -- nothing but (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Uncle Cosmo

                  this thread started with the statement that only customers should be able to write reviews, and I came up with an example of a non-customer.

                  As it is I didn't feel it worthy of continuing to feel annoyed by writing review, let alone suing - it's a minor thing in the scheme of htings. I was only responding to the parent who said that you should limit reviews to customers.

                  •  OK. Then again you were a customer in all respects (0+ / 0-)

                    except the actual custom--you requested services from the company, they came to provide them & then declined to do so. That ought to qualify you for reviewing their service at least to state those facts.

                    IMO that sort of (p)review would be very pertinent: "I requested their services & they declined to provide them." It would be even more pertinent if you called them for service & they never showed up. (Happened to me once re phone lines--they claimed they came & I wasn't home, when I'd been there the whole day waiting for them.)

                    For carpet cleaners maybe no big thing, but if we were talking about (say) plumbers when you had a frozen pipe, people considering their services would be extremely interested in knowing that they had been less than dependable in providing them.

                    The greatest trick the GOP ever played was convincing the devil they had a soul to sell.

                    by Uncle Cosmo on Sat Jan 11, 2014 at 07:18:37 AM PST

                    [ Parent ]

          •  it means they're incompetent (0+ / 0-)

            the job is cleaning carpets. facepalm

      •  asdf (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Lost and Found
        and  "SLAPP" means "Sounds Like A Personal Problem," I can answer.  (I had to look them up.)  
        Urban dictionary or whatever you used is not your friend. Google, however, is. Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation

        How does a merchant know if an anonymous person has or has not been a customer? Do they review reservations or credit card receipts for "anonymous"?

        Why should one believe that any merchant is telling the truth about anything?

        If you go to sites like YELP and Trip Advisor, you'll notice that the number of places receiving favorable reviews vastly exceeds the number of places with advertisements. This would not be the case if failure to advertise led to unfavorable reviews.

        In my experience, every merchant who has claimed that unfavorable reviews were punishment for not taking out advertising has been a conman/conwoman, fraudster or other crook, YMMV (oh, wait, Your Mileage May Vary).

        That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

        by enhydra lutris on Fri Jan 10, 2014 at 11:37:25 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Pretty sure they are . . . (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lost and Found
    Deliberately false statements are not covered by the First Amendment
    For example, see this: The Media Can Legally Lie

    Another example is political advertisements: So It Turns Out Political Candidates Are Legally Allowed To Lie To You

    •  This is correct (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roadbed Guy, UnionMade, Tonedevil

      To be sued for libel/defamation in the US:

      1. The statement has to be false.  In the US, truth is an absolute defense.  IANAL but I'd expect the burden of proof falls on the plantiff.

      2. The person making the statement has to know that it's not true or be acting in malicious disregard for the truth.

      3. There has to be a provable negative effect.  "They hurt my reputation" is not good enough: they need to show evidence that this really happened and that there was some negative impact.

      4. The person has to be acting maliciously.

      5. Depending on how public a figure you are (and most corporations try to act in public), you have a further reduced expectation, e.g. if the negative reviews say "these guys are run by the mafia" it's probably actionable while "these guys left stains on my carpet" isn't.

      A few other points.

      1. The right to anonymity is also pretty fundamental.  (During the revolutionary war, lots of unsigned commentary was distributed, some by the people who later wrote the constitution.)  This is a state court: Yelp will likely appeal to the Federal courts on free speech grounds, where issues such as "even if the commenters were utterly malicious and clearly defamatory, if we grant this, does it chill free speech online?" become relevant.

      2. The company might have a tough time with the actual lawsuit.  A few bogus bad reviews are often people being assholes.  If there are seven of them and no good reviews, well, I'd regard that as a warning flag.  There are too many of the bad reviews to make me think that all of them are defamatory.

      3. Suing the reviewers looks bad.  Now, the 1st amendment lawyers are going to drag the company's reputation through the muck in ways that they can't respond with a lawsuit: if it is a "Christian" business, for example, they are going to get trashed and there's nothing they can do about it because they elected to get involved with public policy.

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