A Virginia appellate court has ruled that Yelp must turn over identifying information of seven commenters who criticized a local rug-cleaning business.
The 2-1 ruling is at odds with numerous decisions by other courts that have upheld people's right to post anonymous reviews about businesses, provided that the comments aren't libelous. In general, only false statements of fact -- and not opinions -- can be defamatory.
In this case, Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, based in Alexandria, Va., alleged that seven commenters who made negative remarks never used the company's services. The appellate court deemed that allegation sufficient to unmask the commenters. The judges ruled that reviews would necessarily contain false statements if they weren't written by customers.
Yelp unsuccessfully urged the Virginia court to follow the lead of other states and rule that companies shouldn't be able to unmask online reviewers without solid evidence of defamation -- which would require significantly more than a suspicion that commenters aren't customers.
But the appellate court rejected Yelp's position, and instead ruled that Hadeed could unmask the commenters based on a “good faith” belief that they weren't customers. “The evidence presented by Hadeed was sufficient to show that the reviews are or may be defamatory, if not written by actual customers of Hadeed,” the court said in a ruling issued this week. “Moreover, Hadeed sought the subpoena ... under the legitimate, good faith belief that the Doe defendants were not former customers, and, therefore, their reviews were defamatory.”
One judge, James Haley, dissented. “A business subject to critical commentary ... should not be permitted to force the disclosure of the identity of anonymous commentators simply by alleging that those commentators may not be customers because they cannot identify them in their database,” Haley wrote.
Yelp's lawyer, Paul Alan Levy of advocacy group Public Citizen, says the company plans to appeal to Virginia's highest court. Levy points out that one reason why Hadeed might have been unable to match the reviews to its customer records is that people often write under under pseudonyms and change their identifying details.
For instance, one user, identified in court papers as “Aris P.” from Haddonfield, N.J., allegedly wrote that the price was double what he was quoted and that Hadeed was once bankrupt. Hadeed argued that the review had to be false because the company didn't do business in New Jersey. But Levy says people use “location pseudonyms” to prevent themselves from being identified online.