A U.S. court has ordered local business review website Yelp to reveal the names of seven of its anonymous reviewers.
The order follows a lawsuit filed by a firm called Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, which suspected that some of the user reviews placed online about it were made up.
The only way for Hadeed to find out whether this was the case was to subpoena Yelp for the information, the Washington Times reported. Hadeed pressed, Yelp resisted, and chose to ignore a county court order, and an additional court was charged with ruling.
The Virginia state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the carpet cleaning company and insisted that Yelp must reveal the names of those users that otherwise would have remained anonymous.
"In its complaint, Hadeed alleged that it tried to match the negative reviews with its customer database but could find no record that the negative reviewers were actually Hadeed customers. Consequently, Hadeed alleged that the negative reviewers were not actual customers; instead, the Doe defendants falsely represented themselves to be customers of Hadeed," said the court's ruling.
"Hadeed's complaint further alleged that the negative comments were defamatory because they falsely stated that Hadeed had provided shoddy service to each reviewer."
Yelp will now have to come up with the names of the reviewers, while Hadeed Carpet Cleaning will also get $1,000 toward its legal costs.
The reviews looked dodgy to Hadeed because they came from areas where it doesn't operate (e.g., New Jersey and Washington).
While it is usually permissable to be anonymous, the courts do not look favorably on defamation. If these "reviewers" weren't customers of the company, then the negative reviews could not possibly be truthful and might be libel. The court ordered Yelp to comply in order to ascertain whether this is the case.
Yelp posted on its blog in response to the announcement. It said that litigation is not a viable alternative to customer service and that an overreaction to a bad review can be worse than a bad review itself.
"Other courts and other states have shown support for citizens' First Amendment right to speak anonymously. Consumers may feel the need to speak anonymously for privacy reasons or for fear of unfair retaliation by a business," it added in a statement to The Inquirer. "This ruling could have a chilling effect on free speech in Virginia specifically and Yelp will continue to fight to protect consumers' privacy and free speech rights. This ruling also shows the need for strong state and federal legislation to prevent meritless lawsuits aimed solely at stifling free speech."