A landmark new ruling that might help our case against ApartmentRatings’s anonymous postings

The Virginia Court of Appeals blew the anonymity of online ratings and reviews out of the water. Or did they? Care to weigh in?

The Virginia Court of Appeals blew the anonymity of online ratings and reviews out of the water. Or did they? Care to weigh in?

There was a decision handed down just a few short days ago (January 8th, 2014) that I think will have quite a big impact on your anonymity with ratings and reviews online. The court decision was from a case in Virginia: Yelp vs Hadeed Carpet Cleaning. The owner of this establishment said that there were anonymous users leaving bad reviews about his company on Yelp. That’s no surprise right? What was different about this case was Hadeed felt that these individuals weren’t real customers of his. This last point is the most important because it established a Yelp terms of service violation. His attorneys issued a subpoena demanding the list of seven anonymous reviewers. The final ruling from the judge in Alexandria said that Yelp had to comply. Here’s the ruling from the court: (via the Washington Times)

However, the court said that First Amendment rights do not cover deliberately false statements and agreed that Mr. Hadeed provided sufficient reason to think the users might not have been customers.

What is the impact for our industry?

The impact for our industry could not be more enormous. I won’t dive into what we’ve gone through as an industry with ApartmentRatings and other sites where users can leave anonymous reviews because I think those points have been done ad nauseam. Think about this though, if we could find cause that individuals are leaving posts on these sites who were never a resident or said things that are grossly untrue, could we not threaten such lawsuits to obtain this same information? At the bare minimum, do you think this would make people think twice before slandering us online?

Does this constitute a shot in the arm for freedom of speech? To better answer this question I think a definition of what that truly means in this country is necessary:

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference.

More…

The most basic component of freedom of expression is the right of freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves without interference or constraint by the government. The Supreme Court requires the government to provide substantial justification for the interference with the right of free speech where it attempts to regulate the content of the speech.

The government isn’t passing laws to silence anyone. I don’t think we as individuals have the right to make slanderous remarks against proprietors or against other individuals. If what we are saying isn’t true, we should be called out for it. I for one am glad that the courts have ruled in this manner as it might hold people accountable for what they say online, just as they would be in a face-to-face conversation.

What do you think about this? I would love to hear from you.

Here’s the full article outlining the case from the Washington Post.

About the author

bsitko
  • Heaven to my ears. Reviews are feedback. I feel if someone truly wanted something positive to come from their review, then they would make it possible for the business to make amends. While I understand the freedom of speech element, many reviews (especially on Apartment Ratings) are vicious, inappropriate attacks. There definitely need to be regulations in place for these “reviewers” to be held accountable or removed for harassment.

    • Exactly Jessica. Bashing without allowing the other side to fix something to your satisfaction isn’t the type of useful dialogue we should be promoting. I’m hoping there aren’t too many regulations but just enough to deter some people from bashing without remorse or identity. Thanks so much for commenting today.

  • Like it. I love ratings and reviews of all types. But the idiot fringe must be leveled either by the community at large or by governance. It’s interesting – I used to use reviews for buying products or services but I don’t give them any time today. Chief reason being that I don’t trust them whatsoever. Half the time they sound like sales speak and the other half of the time, they seem like mindless-need-to-pump-my-reviewer-rating-gibberish.

    Thanks for the post Bill – hope your 14ROCKS!

    M

    • True Mike. I have definitely learned how to root through a lot of that clutter as well. I still use them to make choices on the books I read. It’s easy to ignore the 1 star reviews where people are just complaining about the price of the book and not the actual content. Some people don’t understand what reviews are for do they? As always sir, thanks so much for stopping by.

  • Thanks for writing this, Bill!

    I’m a little confused by the ruling, though–what happens if these people *are* customers? If the whole reason that Yelp had to hand over the identities of the reviewers was that they might not have been customers, what happens if that is false? How do you put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak?

    My concern would be that outed reviewers who *were* customers might counter-sue for privacy violations, coercion, or something like that. Reviewers who lie definitely should get called out, but I worry that this might just create a mutually-assured destruction scenario for apartment companies.

    • I can certainly see the nasty scenarios but hope that (and maybe this is utopian) some sites will start to move away from anonymous because of the possible repercussions. One only hopes.

  • apart ment

    This is great information. I like it. It is very useful for me.

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