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Yelp Vows to Protect Free Speech for Anonymous Yelpers

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Photo: Shutterstock. Photoshop: Eater.com

To what extent are Yelpers protected by the First Amendment? Last week a Virginia Court of Appeals decided the online review site must reveal the identities of seven anonymous Yelpers who left negative reviews, ruling that their "comments were not protected First Amendment opinions" if they were posted by fake accounts or people who didn't actually shop at the business. And now Yelp's Senior Director of Litigation "Aaron S." has taken up the crusade of anonymous Yelpers' rights on their blog: "We plan to appeal the...ruling, and we will continue to fight for the protection and expansion of free speech for all internet users."

According to Aaron S., the Virginia ruling ignored the motivations for posting reviews under pseudonyms, namely "the fact that these reviewers might have used pseudonyms to avoid the justifiable fear of retribution from the business." (He doesn't say what such retribution might be.) Aaron S. continues:

This ruling would allow a business owner in Virginia to obtain identifying information – such as birthdates, email addresses and IP addresses – of individuals that wrote reviews about that business based not on evidence, but only on the speculation of the business owner that maybe these individuals were not customers, but unidentified competitors.

What Yelp's blog post fails to acknowledge is that reviews written by "unidentified competitors" are a actual concern, and the fact that such reviews can squeak by their filter is an intrinsic problem with Yelp's model. A study done in 2013 showed that as many as 16% of Yelp reviews are fraudulent, and while Yelp has cracked down on businesses that buy fake reviews to boost their own ratings, what has been done to dissuade competitors from driving down ratings?

It's not just competitors who post reviews on businesses they've never been to. Take for example the case of Morton's Nashville, where a minor media scandal caused the restaurant's rating to plummet. The fake reviews have since been removed, but people are clearly not above posting fake reviews to get retribution. A similar ratings attack happened in Austin, Texas in 2012.

Maybe businesses are just overreacting to perceived wrongdoing? Aaron S. writes:

Litigation isn't a very good substitute for customer service, and businesses considering using the courts as a weapon against their customers should think twice. Overreacting to a bad review can often make things worse, as most courts are quick to protect online reviewers in the face of intimidation.

Meanwhile, over 700 FTC complaints against Yelp were released in early 2013, citing issues with the website's filter and "review validity" errors, among other things. Many of those reviews claim things like, "The site constantly and relentlessly filters out the good and excellent reviews displaying less positive reviews causing the rating to downgrade." So the Constitution only applies to the reviews that happen to get by Yelp's filter?

Meanwhile, said filter recently let through this two-star Alinea review written from the point of view of a baby (referencing this weekend's AlineaBabyGate), so you know, the thing obviously works really well.

· Protecting Consumer Free Speech in Virginia: A Fight We'll Continue [Yelp]
· All Yelp Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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