Court to Yelp: Reveal names of negative reviewers

A Virginia court insists that seven people who posted anonymous reviews about a carpet cleaning company should be unmasked, because the company believes they were not real customers.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read
Thinking different? Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I recently stayed in a hotel that was described by a Yelp reviewer like this:

Don't be fooled by the nice pictures on their Web site. The one bedroom suite we got looked like a gross, dirty version in comparison (imagine Jersey Shore house AFTER it's already been stayed in). Stains on the drapes, the two girls that slept on the pull out couch got bug bites, and poor plumbing in the bathroom (the shower smelled like sewage and every time the toilet was flushed you had to wait at least 10 minutes before it could be used again) were just some of the horribleness we had to deal with.

I thought the hotel was lovely. Which was just another support for a thought I've had for some time: Why would anyone trust a Yelp reviewer?

But people seem to. So much so that companies' livelihoods can be affected by those who leave their whinings.

Now a court in Virginia has insisted that Yelp name seven reviewers who posted their dissatisfactions about a carpet cleaning company. As the Washington Times reports, the Virginia Court of Appeals declared that Yelp comments weren't covered by the First Amendment because the posters weren't customers of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning.

Yelp insists that Hadeed Carpet Cleaning hadn't justified its need to know the posters' identities. According to the Times, Yelp spokesman Vince Salitto said: "Other states require that plaintiffs lay out actual facts before such information is allowed to be obtained, and have adopted strong protections in order to prevent online speech from being stifled by those upset with what has been said. We continue to urge Virginia to do the same."

Virginia seems to have given that view one star. Raighne Delaney, representing Joe Hadeed, explained to the Times: "The Virginia statute makes the judge a gatekeeper to decide whether or not there's a common-sense reason for someone in our position to get this information."

When lawyers lurch to define common sense, we reach dangerous waters.

Hadeed's defense was that, in examining his database, he couldn't identify the reviewers as customers. Which allows for a certain possibility of, say, database error or, perish the idea, accidental erasure.

Paul Levy, Yelp's lawyer, said this was the first time he'd seen a case in which he'd believed the reviewer was protected and a court had ordered identification.

When contacted to see whether it might seek further steps in resisting the court order, Yelp offered me this further comment: "Other courts and other states have shown support for citizens' First Amendment right to speak anonymously. Consumers may feel the need to speak anonymously for privacy reasons or for fear of unfair retaliation by a business. This ruling could have a chilling effect on free speech in Virginia and Yelp will continue to fight to protect consumers' privacy and free speech rights. This ruling also shows the need for strong state and federal legislation to prevent meritless lawsuits aimed solely at stifling free speech."

Yelp reviews have often been the center of legal controversy. A couple of years ago, a review of a contractor in the DC area led to a $750,000 lawsuit. However, the reviewer's name was public.

Currently, Yelp reviews of the business are less stellar than, for example, reviews on Hadeed Carpet Cleaning's own site.

The two Yelp reviews at the top of the first page offer their own flavor.

The first, a four-star review, reads in part: "Bottom line: Don't play the 'body rolled up in the carpet' gag with Hadeed. They don't play that s***."

The second, a one-star, reads: "Not a customer, never been there, don't live in DC. HOWEVER, according to the news today: if you use Hadeed and he doesn't like your Yelp review, he WILL make a federal case out of it. Literally."

Oh, I sometimes wonder whether all those legal costs are worth it.

Update, 1:05 p.m. PT: Added comment from Yelp.