Monday, 13 January 2014

A Virginia Court Slams Cleaning Companies Phony Yelp Reviews

Bad reviews: Business owner Joe Hadeed (left, with Virginia governor McDonnell) wants to sue anonymous reviewers of his carpet cleaning business for defamation. When Joe Hadeed, the owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, began to receive bad reviews of his service, he suspected the reviewers were not actual customers of his cleaning service, but "trolls" out to irresponsibly damage his reputation. Both were conditions that were in violation of Yelp's terms of use. Mr. Hadeed's attorneys issued a subpoena demanding the names of seven anonymous reviewers, and after a brief review of the motion, a judge in Alexandria ruled that Yelp had to comply, and reveal the identities of those individuals who had posted the negative reviews.
Judge orders to unmask anonymous critics who tore into biz - 'Defamatory speech is not entitled to constitutional protection,' huffs appeals beak: A US Court of Appeals has ordered Yelp to identify anonymous reviewers who slammed a cleaning company. In his ruling this week [PDF], Judge William G Petty, sitting in Virginia, told the review-sharing website to turn over personal information on seven of its users who had panned Hadeed Carpet Cleaning on 

The family run cleaning biz had alleged those seven critics were not customers – it says it has no record of the services the reviewers are complaining about. The cleaners believe the Yelp users deliberately posted negative reviews in order to harm the company. Hadeed, based in Virginia, is seeking to sue the seven for defamation. Yelp has a contact email address, ZIP code and IP addresses from which the site was accessed on file for each account holder, all of which are crucial for the cleaning biz's litigation.

The legal battle started in 2012 when Hadeed subpoenaed Yelp for the identities of seven users who had posted the bad reviews. Yelp turned to the Court of Appeals to quash the subpoena, claiming the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and, in some cases, ensures the anonymity of those who post opinions and reviews on the internet.

According to Judge Petty, however, the rights of Hadeed to protect its reputation from defamatory statements overrides the protections of anonymity, and thus Yelp should be required to hand over identifying data on the seven reviewers. "The freedom of speech – and within this, the freedom to speak with anonymity – is not absolute ... If we assume that the Yelp reviews of Hadeed are lawful, then the John Does may remain anonymous," the judge wrote in his decision.

"But if the reviews are unlawful in that they are defamatory, then the John Does’ veil of anonymity may be pierced, provided certain procedural safeguards are met. This is because defamatory speech is not entitled to constitutional protection."

Yelp, meanwhile, stood fast in its assertion that the case threatens the rights of its users to discuss their experiences honestly and freely. It will appeal to a higher court to scrub the subpoena. "Consumers may feel the need to speak anonymously for privacy reasons or for fear of unfair retaliation by a business," the company said in a statement. "This ruling could have a chilling effect on free speech in Virginia specifically, and Yelp will continue to fight to protect consumers' privacy and free speech rights."

Yelp has become no stranger to the courts and claims from outraged business owners. Firms have accused the site of harboring users who deliberately post negative reviews of businesses in order to harm reputations and drive away customers to rivals. Meanwhile, the site and its users have claimed that companies are using the courts in order to bully independent reviewers and customers into silence and suppressing negative reviews.
Court orders Yelp to reveal anonymous reviewers' identities in defamation case: A Virginia court has ruled that the identities of seven anonymous reviewers who criticized a local carpet cleaning business must be revealed. In a decision that will strike fear in the hearts of all anonymous online trolls, an Alexandria judge ruled on Tuesday that Yelp must comply with the demand of Joe Hadeed's attorneys and hand over the names of the reviewers. Alexandria-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning was the subject of several negative reviews on the site by anonymous authors - who Hadeed claims were not real customers of his business.

If he is correct and the customers are not genuine, Yelp's Terms of Service will have been violated, and the comments will not be protected under the First Amendment. The case began in 2012 when several negative reviews were left on Hadeed Carpet's Yelp page, some claiming the company swindled customers, overcharging hundreds of dollars above the quoted price, while others said their carpets ended up looking worse than before they were cleaned.
Joe Hadeed could find no record that the reviewers were actual customers and sued the authors of seven negative reviews and subpoenaed Yelp for their identities. According to the Courthouse News Service, Yelp refused several times and was help in contempt of court. On Tuesday, the Virginia Court of Appeals agreed two to one, that Yelp must identify the anonymous reviewers. Yelp's Terms of Service requires that reviewers must have been a customer of a business to leave a review.

Bad opinion: The company's Yelp page has seven negative anonymous reviews from 2012 which Hadeed says cannot be matched to any customer.
The company does not require users to register with their full name, but does record the IP address of each review posted. 'The Virginia statute makes the judge a gatekeeper to decide whether or not there’s a common sense reason for someone in our position to get this information,' Raighne Delaney, a lawyer at the Arlington firm Bean, Kinney & Korman who represent Hadeed, told the Washington Times.  'In order for someone like Joe Hadeed to find out who these people are, he has to explain his case, and if he can convince the judge that there might be a real lawsuit against this person, the judge can then say, "Yes, you can get this information,"' said Delaney. If the negative reviews were written by people who were never customers of Hadeed, he will sue for defamation.

Small business: The company cleans and repairs carpets and rugs.
The non-profit advocacy group Public Citizen that represents Yelp says reviewers should not have to reveal their identities when expressing opinions protected by the First Amendment and that Hadeed should have to at least prove that the reviews were false before the identities are handed over. Yelp's lawyers say Hadeed did not meet nationwide standards necessary to uncover the anonymous users, but the court disagreed. 'Yelp said that all the posts had different IP addresses, but how many IP addresses does one person have between all their devices?' said Hadeed’s attorney, Raighne Delaney, to the Washington Times. 'It would be easy to create a number of different fake accounts.'

In a 25-page majority opinion, Judge William G. Petty said, 'Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person’s opinion about a business that they patronized. 'The anonymous speaker has the right to express himself on the Internet without the fear that his veil of anonymity will be pierced for no other reason than because another person disagrees with him,' Judge Petty wrote. However, the court said that First Amendment rights do not cover deliberately false statements and agreed that Hadeed provided sufficient reason to believe the users may not have been customers of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning.
A Virginia Court Slams Phony Yelp Reviews: Small businesses may no longer have to worry about negative Yelp reviews, provided that the reviewer was never actually a customer. That's according to a decision from the Virginia Court of Appeals, which this week ruled the popular website must disclose the names of seven reviewers who anonymously slammed Richmond-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning. The court held that the reviews were not protected First Amendment opinions if the reviewers were never customers and therefore making false claims.

Raighne Delaney, the lawyer representing store owner Joe Hadeed, told the The Washington Times the ruling upholds a lower court statute that will allow judges to decide whether business owners may have a legitimate legal case against online reviewers or another compelling reason to get their names. In his 25-page majority opinion, Judge William G. Petty wrote, "a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person's opinion about a business they patronized," and anonymous reviewers do have the right to express themselves without fear of disclosure.

However, Petty wrote, the First Amendment does not cover false statements. After searching through his customer database, Hadeed had reason to believe the reviewers were never customers of the business, so the "review is not an opinion" but "based on a false statement." Paul Levy, an attorney who represented Yelp, said the ruling will "make it more difficult for the marketplace of ideas to get valuable information about companies." "I’ve litigated in many cases for 14 years, and it’s the first time ... in which we thought the [anonymous party] was clearly protected and the court said they were not," said Levy.

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