Court rules Yelp must ID negative reviewers, no constitutional protection

This is a big deal.

In a decision that could reshape the rules for online consumer reviews, a Virginia court has ruled that the popular website Yelp must turn over the names of seven reviewers who anonymously criticized a prominent local carpet cleaning business.

The case revolves around negative feedback against Virginia-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning. The owner, Joe Hadeed, said the users leaving bad reviews were not real customers of the cleaning service — something that would violate Yelp’s terms of service. His attorneys issued a subpoena demanding the names of seven anonymous reviewers, and a judge in Alexandria ruled that Yelp had to comply.

Should a person have the right to post an anonymous review critical of a business? Does the business have the right to the identity of that reviewer?

The court decided that a person has the right to post a negative review, if that is their opinion. But the business has the right to verify that the reviewer was indeed a customer. If not, then this is no longer opinion, but a false claim, and the reviewer’s comments are not protected by the First Amendment.

This is an important precedent.