Many business have suffered the misery and frustration of a harshly negative, anonymous online review. That anonymity, critics argue, frees the reviewer from worries about the need for accuracy and, worse yet, encourages the spiteful posting of false accusations designed to drive away customers. In competitive markets, the targeted business has no choice but to fear that a rival is behind the posting.
Last week, a Massachusetts judge gave the Commonwealth’s business some relief by ordering Yelp to reveal the identity of an anonymous reviewer who posted disparaging comments about a local jewelry store. Yelp is among a handful of websites that have become ubiquitous in the consumer space. Yelp is often used to identify a business to fill a need or want, and many customers will not patronize a business unless the Yelp reviews are favorable. At the same time, businesses have recognized the importance of this social media tool and place Yelp stickers in their front windows proclaiming “People Love Us on Yelp” while at the same time personally asking customers to post positive reviews.
In a case of first impression in Massachusetts, the San Francisco-based Yelp opposed the third-party subpoena it received in the civil defamation lawsuit that the jewelry store owner has brought against “Customer Doe.” Although the anonymous poster claimed in her review that the owner “lacked ethics” and had “ripped off many other vulnerable and desperate women who had to sell their jewelry,” Yelp refused to remove the post because it “appeared to reflect the user’s personal experience and opinions” and refused to identify the poster. Yelp’s objection was based principally on the First Amendment, citing consumers’ rights to use anonymity as a shield against retribution. The Boston judge disagreed, ordering Yelp to disclose its information about the user, who has since moved to Colorado and whom the store is no doubt poised to name as a defendant in its case.