Yelp must reveal the identities of seven anonymous posters who criticized a carpet cleaner on the online review service, a Virginia Appeals Court ruled on Jan. 7.
Alexandria, Va.–based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning sued the site in 2012, claiming that a cluster of anonymous negative reviews were “defamatory” and not from its actual customers. It asked a local Circuit Court to subpoena Yelp to determine their true identities. When the court agreed, Yelp said it would not comply with the order, arguing the First Amendment protects anonymity unless the government meets certain qualifications.
The Court of Appeals sided with the lower court, finding that the “freedom to speak with anonymity is not absolute.”
“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,” wrote Judge William G. Perry, on behalf of a 2-1 majority. “This is because defamatory speech is not entitled to constitutional protection.”
Yelp’s attorneys argued that being forced to reveal its user’s identities could chill anonymous speech on the Internet, noting the cleaning service had not proved the user’s reviewers were defamatory.
“The principles at stake here go to the core of the right of people to criticize companies on the Internet anonymously,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen, the advocacy group representing Yelp, in a statement.
Following the decision, Yelp told the BBC: “We are disappointed that the Virginia Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the Internet, and which allows businesses to seek personal details about website users—without any evidence of wrongdoing—in efforts to silence online critics.”
Levy told The Atlantic that Yelp planned to appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.
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