YELP On Further Review In Virginia

The online review site Yelp recently got word that the Virginia Supreme Court will review a Virginia intermediate appellate court’s ruling allowing a disgruntled subject of several Yelp reviews to determine the identity of the reviewers. The appellate court had ruled in January that Hadeed Carpet Cleaning could require Yelp to identify seven online reviewers based on Hadeed’s representation that those reviewers did not line up with any customers in the Hadeed data base. On that basis, Hadeed argued that the reviews were bogus, thus giving rise to a defamation claim. 

Yelp argued that it shouldn’t be required to give up the names based solely on Hadeed’s representations that the reviews didn’t align with its data base. Yelp asked the court to apply cases such as Dendrite Int’l. v. Doe (a case from New Jersey) and Doe v. Cahill (a case from Delaware). Those cases require a more detailed showing that the requesting party has a legitimate case on the facts and the law before a court unmasks anonymous posters.

The Virginia appellate court, however, applied a Virginia statute, which required only that the requesting party have a “good faith” basis for its allegation. The court also ruled that the statute didn’t offend the First Amendment rights of the anonymous posters. 

The Virginia Supreme Court’s review is discretionary – it does not have to accept a case such as this. So the fact that it decided to hear Yelp’s appeal may signal that it intends to address some aspect of the appellate court’s ruling. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will reverse the decision. It’s possible that one or two Virginia Supreme Court justices are interested in the issue, but they may not ultimately get a majority to go along. 

So we’ll see. But I am more interested in how Yelp (and other online review sites) deal with the “rock and a hard place” position these cases put them in. On the one hand, Yelp needs to protect the anonymity of its users. Legitimate reviewers should feel free to post their opinions without sacrificing their privacy.

But on the other hand, bogus reviews, and the perception that any review might be bogus, could potentially kill the Yelp business model. So Yelp itself has an interest in rooting out the fiction from the fact. In short, Yelp may not be completely devastated no matter what happens in the Virginia Supreme Court.