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.