Thursday, January 09, 2014

Yelp told by Virginia courts to give identities of anonymous posters to plaintiff (Hadeed case); implications for review sites?

A case involving anonymous negative reviews against a Virginia carpet cleaning business may have effect on review sites in general.  The Washington Times, in a front page news story by Kellan Howell and Phillip Swarts, reports that the Virginia Court of Appeals has agreed with a state circuit judge in Alexandria that review site Yelp must turn over the names of seven reviewers.  The link for the story is here
The appeals court agreed that making negative (or perhaps false) comments about a company when the speaker had not behaved as a customer of the company is not protected under the First Amendment. 
The plaintiff (Hadeed Carpet Cleaning and Joe Hadeed) had also argued that the anonymous posters had violated Yelp’s own terms of service.
Review sites has encountered difficulties when a few parties create multiple fraudulent accounts to disparage a particular business.
Section 230 is supposed to protect the site from liability for the actual comments, but it would not protect anonymity of posters, who still can be liable on their own.
What if a business wanted the identity of someone who posted a defamatory comment on my blog?  I would not be able to find it, but the service provider would.  It’s unlikely now, since I have automated comment screening (for spam) and then moderate the comments, and the volume is not that much.  But in the past, until about 2009, I did accept all comments, but found a few of the malicious or trying to sell malware, or spam-like. I removed all such comments from my blogs around the start of 2009, but could have missed one or two.

Update: January 27

There is more analysis of the Virginia appeals court's decision on anonymity, and how Virginia compare to other states.  There is concern that Yelp reviewers could be in real danger in Virginia. The story in Mondaq by Maryanne Stanganelli is here

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