Yelp can protect critics in rough reviews row: Virginia yanks rug from under furious carpet biz

Top court strikes down previous order to unmask users

Top judges in Virginia have ruled that Yelp can keep the identities of its anonymous reviewers a secret from Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc – a cleaning business that wanted to sue the armchair critics for defamation.

In a majority opinion [PDF] handed down today, the state's supreme court overturned a 2014 appeals court verdict that ordered Yelp to give Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc the information it wanted.

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc, headquartered in Springfield, Virginia, subpoenaed the San Francisco-based website to find out who exactly had been posting scathing reviews of its cleaning services. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc ultimately wanted to sue the Yelp users for defamation, claiming they were never customers of the business and were making it all up.

The appeals court reckoned Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc's right to protect its reputation outweighed the assurances of anonymity Yelp promises its users.

There was a concern that the appeals court's judgment could set a precedent, encouraging organizations or anyone with a chip on their shoulder to trample on free speech by demanding the identities of anonymous reviewers posting online. The threat of legal action against those who write negative reviews will have a chilling effect on free expression.

But rather than deal with that sticky issue, the supreme court instead noted that it cannot force out-of-state Yelp to comply with a subpoena in Virginia, sparing the website from handing over its user records.

"We conclude that the circuit court was not empowered to enforce the non-party subpoena duces tecum directing Yelp to produce documents located in California in connection with Hadeed's underlying defamation action against the John Doe defendants in the Virginia circuit court," the judges wrote.

"The information sought by Hadeed is stored by Yelp in the usual course of its business on administrative databases within the custody or control of only specified Yelp employees located in San Francisco, and thus, beyond the reach of the circuit court."

Yelp has had a history of being manipulated by scammers. Last year, an extortion scheme threatened restaurants with poor reviews unless they handed over payment in Bitcoin. The scam appeared to have been a failure with none of the companies actually bothering to pay up. ®

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