Justice

Yelp Lawsuit Could Expose Anonymous Online Commenters

CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File

A Yelp lawsuit seeking to force the company to reveal anonymous users could have serious repercussions for free speech online. Virginia’s Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday for an online defamation case, where Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Alexandria sued Yelp because of the negative customer reviews it got on the site, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Hadeed tried to identify and sue the authors of seven anonymous comments — among more than 80 total reviews — by matching up the reviews’ content with its own customer database. According to the complaint, Hadeed isn’t asserting the negative reviews are patently false, but the company couldn’t find these customers in their database.

The company sued Yelp in 2012 and a court ordered the social site to turn over its customer database and reveal the anonymous users. Yelp users must register with the site to post reviews and ratings.

Yelp appealed the decision earlier this year, arguing that to protect free speech, businesses must have a compelling case to force social media companies to reveal anonymous users’ identities. But while the appeals court agreed that free speech should be protected past “the login screen,” businesses have the right to protect their reputation, according to court documents. As a result, the court ruled the comments as less-protected commercial speech under the First Amendment.

Now the state Supreme Court will determine whether social media companies can be forced to reveal user identities based on whether a business doesn’t like what was said. The decision could reverberate throughout the online community, making it so any site that permits anonymous comments, including news sites and online forums like Reddit and 4chan, would have to keep track of and expose customers personal information on demand.

Yelp isn’t a stranger to lawsuits. The company has been previously accused of extortion for advertising, where businesses said the review company solicited them to buy ads in exchange for more favorable rankings. The company was also accused of suppressing reviews through its filtering service. Businesses complained the company’s filter buried legitimately positive reviews while making the critical ones more prominent.

But the California-based site’s latest legal battle could stifle free speech online. Social media sites subsist on their openness, where people can be themselves, or not, and freely share ideas and news. But even though social sites fervently protect their users privacy and identity, they struggle along with legal system on how to adequately weigh online speech, and how much of it should be taken seriously. Depending on the Virginia court’s decision, a new standard of accountability could be created, where every post could potentially be linked to the once anonymous speaker.