Court tells Yelp it must reveal some critics’ identities
A court ruling forcing Yelp to disclose the identities of several anonymous critics is getting bad reviews from free-speech advocates.
A Virginia appeals court ordered the San Francisco site to identify those responsible for seven negative reviews of a carpet cleaning company, citing a state statute that allows courts to unmask those behind online avatars if there is “legitimate, good-faith” belief they violated the law.
Legal experts say that Virginia has a lower standard for outing internet users than other states including California and that the decision likely won’t set a precedent for the wholesale disclosure of anonymous speech online. But it could cause some would-be critics to think twice before choosing to publish on a negative review.
“You have a chilling effect,” says Matt Zimmerman, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has pushed states to recognize anonymity as a first amendment right. “People think that legitimate criticisms are a dangerous thing.”
The case hinged on whether poor reviews of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Alexandria were written by actual customers. Even though the company couldn’t prove its critics weren’t previous patrons, Judge William Petty said in the majority opinion that the company is entitled to the names because it searched customer records and found nothing that matched the descriptions of services in the bad reviews.
Because the identities of the writers are essential to the lawsuit, Petty said Yelp must turn them over.
Yelp, which plans to appeal the ruling, says the case is a strategic lawsuit against public participation – a phrase shortened to SLAPP in legal circles that’s used to define filings aiming to intimidate people with litigation so they don’t speak out.
“We’re disappointed that this Virginia court ruling has highlighted lower consumer privacy protections in that state versus the other 49,” says Yelp spokesman Vince Sollitto. “This also highlights the need for stronger rules against SLAPP lawsuits.”
California’s online commenters have greater protections against such litigation than those in Virginia, according to Evan Mascagni, an attorney at the California Anti-SLAPP Project.
“California has one of the strongest anti-SLAPP laws in the country,” he said. “Virginia doesn’t have any anti-SLAPP laws.”
Thursday’s decision is groundbreaking in that it “creates a much lower standard than virtually all other courts who have dealt with this issue,” according to Zimmerman.
Read the full article from the San Francisco Chronicle here: