Has a negative review on Yelp affected your decision to patronize a business or not? A recent appeals court’s decision forcing Yelp to identify an anonymous poster not only could affect the company’s business model but also anonymous speech online.
Gizmodo recently reported on the defamation case in which tax preparer Gregory M. Montagna accused a disgruntled Yelp user, who went by “Alex M.,” of defamation after he or she posted the negative review of Montagna’s services — a review which began with “Too bad there is no zero star option!”
Montagna claims to have an idea who this user is, but in order for him to prove he’s being defamed, that user must be identified. A lower court had previously agreed, ruling that Yelp had to turn over documents that might identify the user and also, notably, that the company didn’t have the proper legal standing to assert First Amendment rights on the user’s behalf.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and other companies whose business practice also relies on this standing, like Twitter, Reddit and Google, put their support behind Yelp. Said EFF:
“Simply put, many online platforms recognize that a key to maintaining the robust forum their users rely upon requires having their users’ backs.”
The appeals court agreed. While it upheld the lower court’s decision that Yelp must turn over key documents, it did not agree on its position on First Amendment rights. The appeals court ruled that Yelp and similar sites do, indeed, have the proper legal standing to assert First Amendment rights on behalf of their users. But, says Gizmodo, the outcome is still complicated for Yelp and other companies.
“On the one hand, users might feel uncomfortable openly expressing themselves in the future. A user could hope to state an opinion but fear it could be misconstrued as defamatory. On the other hand, the services might be more useful if reviewers were a little more thoughtful when they weigh-in.”
But there is good news for Yelp and others, adds Gizmodo. This lawsuit does not set a precedent. Case law states that it’s still up to the individual courts to resolve such a situation in the future.
The American Genius reports on a similar case involving Glassdoor — the site that features users’ anonymous company reviews. While the Arizona Federal Grand Jury was investigating whether “a government contractor that administers two Department of Veteran’s Affairs programs committed wire fraud and misused government funds,” it served Glassdoor with a subpoena to identify a handful of its reviewers, including their emails, IP addresses and billing information.
Glassdoor filed a motion to suppress the subpoena, which was denied. While Glassdoor continues to try to fight the subpoena, the outcome does not appear to be in the company’s favor. As the American Genius notes:
“Since the government is not investigating Glassdoor itself, but rather attempting to further the grand jury case with information from users, Glassdoor’s motion to quash the subpoena was denied.”
The case is ongoing but the eight reviewers will likely have to testify in the case.