Consumers in Virginia and around the country are increasingly turning to websites such as yelp.com to get opinions on various restaurants and businesses when they are deciding where to eat or shop. Although the reviews are usually posted anonymously or under screen names, they are often relied upon and given great weight. A carpet cleaning business in Alexandria, Virginia, went to court seeking the names of people who left negative reviews on the Yelp website.
Attorneys for the company claimed that the persons making the posts were not actually customers, and asked for their names in order to bring a defamation action. The Court of Appeals of Virginia has ruled that Yelp, Inc., the owner and operator of the website, must turn over the names. Public Citizen, a nonprofit group, is representing Yelp and is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Yelp says that the anonymous comments are protected by the First Amendment, and it is the company's obligation to prove that the reviews are false. Some of the reviews accused the company of bait and switch tactics in its advertised promotions.
A business advertises and works hard to develop positive relationships with its customers. Word of mouth and public websites are an important way for a small business to become known to the public when they do not have funds for advertising. Disputes between business partners, suppliers, customers and competitors can just be part of doing business, but defamatory statements can cause significant harm to a company's reputation and may result in business litigation.
Source: My FOX DC, "Va. court rules Yelp has to reveal identities of anonymous negative reviewers of carpet cleaner ", Karen Gray Houston, January 09, 2014