Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Washington DC business sues (a few) "John Doe" posters on Yelp; controversy over Yelp's effect on small business online reputation continues

An exercise studio in the Dupont Circle area of Washington DC, Fuse Pilates, has filed a lawsuit against up to three anonymous people who allegedly posted malicious reviews of the restaurant on Yelp.  It was not clear if this was in federal court. The story appeared this evening on the website of ABC Affiliate WJLA-7  in Arlington VA, link here
Under Section 230, Yelp would normally be immune to liability for what its users post. It is not clear whether  Yelp could be compelled to submit the IP addresses of the people who posted, and it is not clear that these would necessarily identify individual people (what if they were in libraries?)

I have never heard of a lawsuit against anonymous posters on a review site before. 

I have never visited the studio  (I had heard the name before and had thought it was an eatery!) although I often visit the general neighborhood.  The company’s self-explanatory link is here

According to a Wall Street Journal story on Oct. 28, 2011 (by Geoffrey A. Fowler), a federal judge dismissed a class action lawsuit against Yelp.  The litigation had claimed that Yelp “extorts” businesses into paying for advertising on the site to get rid of or prevent unfavorable reviews.  The WSJ link (paywall) is here

On March 12, 2012, I wrote a story here about a report by Anderson Cooper of another site that allowed users to identify people as STD “carriers” and then tried to get them to pay to have their “online reputations” cleansed.  I have not seen Cooper report on the Yelp matter.

Nevertheless, the website for the litigation is still out there, called “Yelp Lawsuit”, here

A website called Pixsym has a discussion of the now controversial “Yelp extortion” complaints (“are they back at it again?”), saying “thousands of people each day are making buying decisions based on the very visible reviews at Yelp”, link here.

Now, I don’t personally pay much attention to review sites, and I don’t give weight to a few negative reviews.  I certainly would look at negative anonymous reviews with some “suspicion” and tend to disregard them.  Where I have noticed troubling negative comments are in the areas of customer service by ISP’s (web hosting services) and telecommunications companies. In a couple of cases, I’ve looked into the claims and determined that they were probably unfounded.  

I had discussed another similar story about Twitter and reputational problems for small businesses Monday.

Yelp has its own vdieo on its "Review Filter"

Picture: from the Washington Monument, Aug., 2007 (before the earthquake). 

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