|Yelp must reveal the identities of several users that posted negative comments about a business, a US court has decided. The Virginia Court of Appeals sided with Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, and demands that the details for a group of anonymous users on the review service must be revealed, with Yelp claiming the ruling "fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the Internet."
Lawyers working on behalf of Joe Hadeed, owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, requested the identities of seven negative reviewers, reports the BBC, with the main reasoning being that he believed them not to be genuine customers, and therefore do not receive First Amendment protection.
In a statement, the judge agreed that "Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person's opinion about a business that they patronized," and that users have the right to anonymously discuss services online without worrying about identification over disagreeable commentary. The judge does clarify that "If 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," and therefore does not receive such anonymous protections.
Speaking on behalf of Yelp, spokesperson Vince Sollitto claimed that the US had "adopted strong protections in order to prevent online speech from being stifled by those upset with what was being said," though the company hopes for Virginia to follow the lead of other states in adopting such measures. "We are disappointed that the Virginia Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the Internet, and which allows businesses to seek personal details about website users – without any evidence of wrongdoing – in efforts to silence online critics."
Such a decision by the courts could have a chilling effect on future Yelp reviews, which could leave some users wary of leaving negative reviews in future, for fear of being identified and being sued over their comments. According to the company blog, Yelp plans to appeal the ruling, and to "continue to fight for the protection and expansion of free speech for all Internet users."
Yelp came under fire in May last year over its reviews, with reports of reviews for businesses being hidden from view in order to benefit the service directly, such as removing negative reviews in order to attract advertisers. Yelp refuted the claims.