When officials from New York City's Center for Disease Control and Prevention wanted to investigate food poisoning, they turned to Yelp.
The city realized that some people who got sick after eating out were more likely to post bad reviews than call "311" to file an official report. So city officials and Yelp examined nearly 300,000 restaurant reviews posted between July 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013, searching for words associated with food poisoning. Researchers determined that around 500 reviews included words associated with food poisoning, but less than 3% of the reviewers had made reports to the city.
After following up with phone interviews, investigators determined there had been three unreported food poisoning outbreaks at city restaurants. Two of those restaurants were subsequently closed down for multiple violations of the city's code.
Yelp now points to that investigation as an example of why net neutrality rules are needed.
"The value of connecting people to each other in real time ... cannot be understated," Yelp says in a friend-of-the-court brief filed this week with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Other companies signing the brief are Reddit, Twitter, Automattic (which owns WordPress), Medium and Squarespace.
"When one Twitter user Tweeted an official in India about his missing sister, the message triggered a political response that led to his sister’s rescue from human traffickers," the groups say. "When Yelpers complained about meals that made them sick, health departments used that information to identify places repeatedly associated with foodborne illness."
The companies say that without net neutrality, platforms for speech could disappear. "Free or low cost platforms for user-generated content may not survive if they have to satisfy broadband providers’ demands to stay accessible," the groups write.
"People have never in history been this extensively and powerfully directly connected to each other and the world," Yelp and the others say. "All of that is at risk if broadband providers get to block or limit access to those voices they decide to disfavor -- and that is exactly what petitioners are fighting for the right to do. That risk must not be taken lightly."
The net neutrality rules prohibit broadband providers from blocking or degrading content and from charging companies higher fees for faster delivery of their traffic. The rules also broadly prohibit providers from hindering the ability of Web users and content companies to connect online.
AT&T, CenturyLink and various other companies and trade groups have sued to vacate the rules. The FCC is defending the regulations.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on Dec. 4.