Lawsuit Tries to Expose Anonymous Online Reviewers

February 12, 2014

Recent cases are challenging the rights of online reviewers to remain anonymous against the right of businesses to pursue defamation claims. In one of the latest cases, Yelp filed an appeal all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court that challenges a court’s order to release the identity of allegedly defamatory reviewer.

In the case, Yelp Inc. vs. Hadeed Carpet, the company Hadeed challenges whether a set of negative reviews posted on Yelp were really authored by real customers. Hadeed had filed a complaint and asked Yelp to supply documents containing the full name, gender, birth date, IP address, and e-mail address of the authors. The company used a Virigina statute that says anonymous communications must be revealed that “may be tortious or illegal.”

Yelp refused to supply the information and the incident first went to circuit court, then the court of appeals, and now the Virginia Supreme Court is being asked to weigh in.

Yelp argues that if  “a company is able to identify its critics by doing no more than representing that it believes that its critics are not customers, consumers and others who have valuable contributions to make to public debate, but who worry about retaliation, will be chilled into silence.”

But businesses say it’s unfair to provide them with no recourse when they’re targeted by an anonymous review that they know to be false.

The topic is raising First Amendment issues. “Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent,” wrote the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995. “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.” However, speech that is deemed defamatory can fall outside First Amendment protection.

Source: “When Should the Authors of Anonymous Online Reviews be Revealed? Yelp Challenges a Court ‘Unmasking’ Order,” (Feb. 7, 2014)

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