Careful with Those Yelp Reviews
Anonymous online reviews are part of our digital culture. But your anonymity can quickly go down the drain if a court orders the website to disclose your identity to a business suing you for defamation. That is exactly what happened in Virginia, when seven dissatisfied clients of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning let the company have it in Yelp reviews. Hadeed claims in a lawsuit that the reviewers were never customers at all and, therefore, their reviews were false and thus defamatory.
In the suit, Hadeed subpoenaed Yelp, demanding that it reveal the identities of the reviewers. Yelp refused. The court sided with Hadeed. It noted that several other states require persons claiming defamation to provide sufficient evidence of defamation before the court will require the “outing” of anonymous critics. The court, instead, followed a lesser standard, which allows identities to be disclosed only upon a showing of a “good faith basis” to believe the review is defamatory.
Think carefully before you post an online criticism. Does the website you’re posting to, such as Yelp, have your name, email address or other identifying information? Make sure your review is factual. It’s much better to say “our dinner was cold and our waiter was rude”, than “this is the worst restaurant on the planet, and its owners are crooks”.
I think we will see more and more of these disclosure orders entered by the courts. Remember, an email, Twitter or online review can be just as damaging and defamatory as a newspaper article or news broadcast. And the courts are making computer-based anonymity a thing of the past.