Yelp Appeals to the Supreme Court to Keep Reviewer Identities Private

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“They say they have a right to put this information out there. But where’s my right to defend my business?” Joe Hadeed

Businesses need online reviews to be trusted by consumers, improve their SEO and garner important feedback and criticism. What if, though, those reviews prove to be baseless allegations and slander?

Joe Hadeed claims this is what has happened to his business, Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc. One day Hadeed found a negative, anonymous review on Yelp. Then another. And then some more. The negative reviews came in over the next few weeks, and Hadeed was unable to figure out where they had come from.

The loss of money Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc. saw after the string of negative reviews solidifies just how important these reviews are. Hadeed claims that in 2012, business plummeted 30%, and that revenue fell from $12 million to $9.5 million. Because of the loss, Hadeed had to release 80 workers and reduce his fleet of trucks.

Deciphering Fact from Fiction

Unable to identify if these reviews came from actual customers, Hadeed filed a defamation suit against the users and subpoenaed Yelp to identify them.

A judge in the same city Hadeed’s company is based in — Alexandria, Virginia — ruled in favour of Hadeed. The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in a 2-1 vote, concurring that Yelp must turn over the names of the selected reviewers. Judge William Petty explained his ruling, as reported by Courthouse News:

Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person’s opinion about a business that they patronized. 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, in that the reviewer was never a customer of the business, then the review is not an opinion; instead, 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 (Judge William Petty).

Yelp argues that Hadeed has not provided enough information to ensure the reviews are fake, and that turning over the names would be a violation of the First Amendment. They have appealed to the Supreme Court, and a ruling is anticipated later this month.

The review giant is constantly battling allegations of fraudulent reviews, but claims that their review software is sophisticated enough to filter these out. A study conducted at the Harvard Business School suggests that potentially 16% of Yelp reviews are fraudulent, according to Yelp’s own algorithmic indicator. Whether those reviews come from business owners writing elaborately positive reviews for their own business or extremely harsh reviews of their competitors, it’s essential to weed them out. The site’s integrity is essential for Yelp to be seen as a reliable source of public opinion.

If the Supreme Court rules in favour of Hadeed, reviewers may think twice before posting a scathing review online.

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Nykea Marie Behiel

Nykea is the Director of Content at Vendasta, where she heads up our content marketing team and inbound marketing initiatives.