Last week the Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed a lower court’s ruling that ordered Yelp to pass along the full, legal names of seven reviewers to the business they had reviewed. Posting anonymously or using their Yelp screen names, all seven individuals had left reviews that were highly critical of the Alexandria carpet cleaning service.
The ruling sent a chill through on-line communities.
There’s an assumption of privacy when you sit at home sounding off on sites like Yelp; you’re just one more disembodied voice in the cacophony that unites in digital forums. The ruling is intended to pierce the veil of privacy so that the carpet cleaner can challenge specific claims contained in the reviews and potentially sue the reviewers.
The carpet cleaner would not be the first business owner to sue for a negative review. Defamation lawsuits are becoming more common as the free-wheeling chatter of review sites collides with the growing importance of online reputations. Judgements–some running into millions of dollars—have targeted individual reviewers on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Angie’s List.
Where’s the First Amendment in all this?
Anonymous communications have always been privileged and protected as an important element in our political and social discourse. If those communications are deliberately false and damaging to a business, they’re illegal; they lose their First Amendment protection and the target can sue for defamation. You can freely give your opinion, and it can be as vulgar, abusive, or outrageous as you want, but if you’re making a statement of fact, you’d better have your facts straight.
Dining reviews: where chef egos collide with sharp-tongued critics
Restaurateurs are especially litigious toward reviewers but incidents of genuine defamation are rare. There’s a lot of leeway in the highly subjective world of dining reviews, as long as you stick to opinions. Go ahead and bash the meal but be careful of suppositions about the grade of beef, health code violations, ingredients that you think you do or don’t detect, or anything else that can be countered factually. That means a meal can be described as nauseating but unless you can verify the salmonella bacterium you better not claim food poisoning.
The review sites themselves are off the hook.
Sites like Yelp are merely the messengers and are not liable for the messages. They can be aware of or even make editorial judgments regarding objectionable content, but they’re still treated as simple intermediaries for third party content. Legal claims can only be directed at the reviewers themselves.
A cautionary tale for the social media era
As the internet continues to mature the stakes are getting higher, and we can expect to see many more lawsuits. Online reputations keep growing in importance and their significance is extending to more and more business sectors. This makes businesses that are targeted by defamation more inclined to sue, and the courts are growing more cognizant of the scope of damages and are awarding plaintiffs accordingly.