Internet Law

Yelp ordered to turn over identities of seven authors who wrote alleged fake reviews

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A Virginia appeals court has ruled Yelp must turn over the identities of seven anonymous reviewers of a carpet cleaning business who did not appear to be actual customers.

The Virginia Court of Appeals found no First Amendment violation when the business, Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, could not find customer records that matched the negative reviews. The Washington Times covered the decision, which was also noted by How Appealing.

“The freedom of speech—and within this, the freedom to speak with anonymity—is not absolute,” the court said in an opinion (PDF) released Wednesday. “If the reviews are unlawful in that they are defamatory, then the John Does’ veil of anonymity may be pierced.”

One reviewer, “Aris P.” from Haddonfield, N.J., claimed that the price of carpet cleaning was double the quote and that Hadeed was once bankrupt. But Hadeed does not conduct business in New Jersey. Several other allegedly fake reviews complained that the price was double the quote, or criticized Hadeed’s advertising.

A partial dissenter argued that Hadeed could not be sure that the reviewers were not actual customers, and the authors should be protected.

Paul Levy of Public Citizen represented Yelp. “Hadeed really did nothing to justify the need for the identity of the Does in this case,” he told the Washington Times. “It’s going to make it more difficult for the marketplace of ideas to get valuable information about companies.”

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