Whether several scathing reviews posted to a local Virginia carpet cleaning business were actually from real customers could turn out to be a watershed moment for staying anonymous on Yelp, which has been asked by local a Virginia appeals court judge to name real names. Those reviewers of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning went under anonymous identities on the popular reviews service, something that initially kept the complaint from moving forward. Under Virginia's legal standard, anonymous parties need to be named if it might be defamation, which resulted in two of the three judges presiding over the case to rule that Yelp needs to turn over that information.
Free speech, but maybe not anonymous
The ruling is the next major milestone in the controversial suit that was filed by owner Joe Hadeed against the Yelp users in July 2012. The case brought immediate attention for possibly violating first amendment free speech rights, something Yelp argued in its briefs. In a statement to The Washington Times, the company said it was "disappointed" in the ruling, adding that it "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." Yelp also said that it would be pressing Virginia to reevaluate its laws to better protect online users.
While free and popular, particularly negative Yelp reviews have brought legal blowback to some users, and been a source of controversy for the company itself. Two years ago a reviewer from Fairfax (also in Virginia) was hit with a $750,000 defamation lawsuit after alleging that a contracting company she used had done shoddy work and stolen valuable jewelry. A judge initially ruled in favor of the business, causing the Yelp review to be altered and removed, though it was later returned following a ruling from a higher court. Yelp has also taken heat for allegedly offering business owners a way to hide, or outright remove negative reviews, something it's vehemently denied.