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Court Rules That Yelp Must Unmask the Identities of Seven Anonymous Reviewers (theatlantic.com)
94 points by middleclick 1346 days ago | hide | past | web | 53 comments | favorite



To me, this sounds like the court overstepped their bounds. I'd be surprised if a carpet cleaning company didn't have at least a few negative reviews, but looking at the reviews on Yelp that did have their names, I'm a bit shocked this company is still in business. Now that they've sued to find anonymous customers, the reviews are filling up with dis-satisfied non-customers (fun to read):

http://www.yelp.com/biz/hadeed-carpet-alexandria?nb=1

P.S. It also seems like most people are unhappy with both their business practice (holding "finished" rugs hostage unless an increased price is paid) AND with the quality of their work.


Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but it's high time... TripAdvisor, Yelp and several other sites all have the same issue.

In the competitive NYC hotel biz, competitors and people with post-stay expenditure remorse have been posting false/fake reviews of encountering bedbugs/mice/ants, blood/semen stains, pubic hair (can it ever anything else?) and prostitutes.

Since reviewers have no obligation to prove they actually stayed at a property, they can say whatever they want. Property owners meanwhile have zero recourse other than a management response and without reservation details they can't even investigate claims.

Competitors can usually be detected by references to their own hotels as better alternatives. 'Remorsees' are trickier, but there are patterns as well. For instance, they do not address issues during their stay, as indicated in post-stay surveys, but once they read the credit card statement, they send in complaints and post negative reviews thinking the "squeaky wheel gets the grease" (spoiler: they rarely do).

I have even seen negative reviews posted which are promptly followed up on with a "settlement offer" email to the hotel ("Just give me back 50% and I will remove my review. If you don't, I will post this review on every trip review site on the planet.")

The worst thing I've seen is a claim of bedbugs crawling from the mattress (impossible, they're tempurpedic and bedbug sniffing dogs visit the rooms at least once a month) where the reviewer had uploaded an image from Wikipedia, claiming it was a bedbug he'd caught in his room... We traced that one back to a self-proclaimed journalist/blogger miffed at not getting free nights in return for an article... In this particular case, reservations for this hotel dropped by 20% overnight and we had to threaten a lawsuit for the site in question to get it removed when they remained unresponsive.

After analyzing 5+ years of customer feedback and surveys, I can tell you than a lot of visitors should have just thought twice before going on a trip...


Makes sense to me, and I say this as one who has posted several negative reviews on Yelp under the same name that's on his driver's license. Yelp's primacy in its field means that a negative review on the site can substantially depress the business of the company so disfavored. Given that potential impact, why shouldn't I be prepared to stand behind my words? Why shouldn't anyone?

Anonymous speech on the Internet is of enormous value, but I fail to see why the protection of anonymity should be extended to outright slander. Such permissiveness can only dilute the perceived value of anonymous speech as a whole, with potentially disastrous effects on those who cannot speak in safety otherwise.


This is Yelp - don't they have a track record of leaving fabricated negative reviews for companies that refuse to do business with them? They probably don't want to reveal the identities of the anonymous reviewers because they're not actually real people.


I don't think I've ever heard of Yelp fabricating negative reviews, though there have indeed been numerous allegations of their downplaying positive reviews of businesses that don't pay their Yelp Tax.


That said, the more we hear about their business practices, the easier I find it becomes to wonder if we will indeed one day discover Yelp-fabricated negative reviews.


It is a common story among small business owner. Such legends or which hunts are shockingly common with the thickening filter bubbles.


I feel this is the ultimate end result of every single "consumer" organization such as this. Its sad really...


This is an important issue that has not yet been tackled in regards to doctor-patient interactions. This relationship has a lot of legal doctrine and is very much 'one-way' in the information control--in a nutshell, HIPAA (law) prevents a physician from releasing information about a patient without their consent. Yet, there are review sites that allow people to anonymously review their physician. But now imagine that the patient's name is visible, the physician STILL CAN'T defend themselves because the information would be protected from release. So, consider this situation--you can neither confront the accuser nor answer with rebuttal.

And yes, the comments may be defamatory if there are statements of fact that are not true. I'm really shocked by the number of people in that site's comments that are comparing this to revolution in Syria or Egypt. I mean, really people? That is almost farcical to the point of Poe's law.

The summary of this whole legal shenanigans seems to be that a business got bad reviews and wants to confirm if these people leaving reviews were actual customers. I think it's hard to make an argument against this stance, especially if this can be done in a way that doesn't reveal the reviewer's identities to the carpet company--say a neutral third party mediator. It would cost a lot less than an appeal.

If you want to know why Yelp is fighting this, it's not about your civil liberties. Look at the bad precedent it would set for their business model--if that case won, any business in VA could force Yelp to respond to inquiries regarding any anonymous reviews. Sounds like a cumbersome and expensive reason to keep fighting.


> I'm really shocked by the number of people in that site's comments that are comparing this to revolution in Syria or Egypt.

Welcome to America, land of the wish-we-were-as-brave-as-them.


Here's how you recognize "brave" people : they don't exist. There's 2 groups of people in Syria : those who have no choice, on both sides, and criminals hiding behind religion.

Now why both sides have no choice is simple, but distressing. There's no real solution.

First the real "revolutionaries". They fight because the cost of living in Syria has risen beyond their capacity and they can't leave. They are not brave, except insofar as they choose to fight now rather than wait until they're dead.

Second the "government". They are a minority religious group in a strict islamic country. To sunni muslims they are worse than the Jews. They can't fix the economy any more than Barack Obama can (or for that matter Bush, or whoever). They also cannot give up their position : sunnis will exterminate them in Syria just like they've done in Iraq, just like they're trying to do to the Jews in Israel. Sunnis are not making a secret of this. In short : they can't give in to terror, because giving in to terror escalates terror (for obvious reasons). What's weird here is that they have the support of other minority religious groups, like Syrian Druze muslims, who fight for them (just like they fight for the Jews in Israel, despite having the choice).

And thirdly you have the criminals, the "real believers" , the mujahideen ("swords of faith"), who fight to exterminate any non-wahhabi. Do NOT look at this link unless you know what you're getting into http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVLZPxCEggw . This is what saudi arabia is paying for, mostly with US oil money.

note that obviously these people don't believe. They rape, they gamble, they drink, and they know this perfectly well. Now you can try to make an argument that islam only demands you enforce islamic law on others, you don't actually have to follow it yourself. But these people do not really believe in any meaningful sense. They want to do this, and they're given the chance to get away with it. That's how they're recruited, those are the promises. (Of course you could -correctly- point out that that's the promise the paedophile prophet made to the first muslim converts : that they would get to rape, pillage and raid).


Yes, but this requires that people understand what's going on in Syria/Egypt. That's not the case with the people who compare their situation to the Arab Spring and the like. They make the comparison because it lionizes their identification as underdogs in an oppressive governmental regime, not because it has a whit of accuracy. They see the press praise the revolutionaries are brave people, so they compare it to themselves.


... On the one hand, that is pretty messed up.

On the other, I'm not OK with Yelp the extortion racket getting advertising.


Exactly what I thought when I read the headline. This feels like a red herring and a straw man out on a snipe hunt.


What extortion racket?


Well, it really kicked off in ~2009 when this story popped: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/yelp-and-the-business-...

Many owners alleged that they received cold calls from Yelp about negative reviews, offering refuge in exchange for buying advertising on yelp.

Yelp didn't have much to say short of denials, but rumours of it ran pretty rampant. Here's a recent response to them by yelp: http://officialblog.yelp.com/2013/05/no-yelp-doesnt-extort-s...

Of course, business owners are alleging foul play in the black box filtering algorithm, not the deletion per say, but that's sort of how the rumour evolved anyway.

Too much shit has being thrown at yelp, and admittingly not all of it has stuck, but I wouldn't trust anything on there. I don't trust their black box.


How is that different from Google putting bought links at the top for search results?

I guess, one could argue that Google do not call companies and say: "You've had a really good website for key words "foo and bar", but the few first one at the top goes elsewhere. Pay us $299 a month and your website will be at the top".


Google puts bought links above and to the side of their search results. These links are clearly separated labelled advertisements and are thus no different to any other online/print advertisements

That is not by a very long stretch of the imagination the same as what Yelp does.

Yelp offer to bury negative reviews in exchange for payment. That's the very definition of extortion.


I think the point was that Yelp's algorithm is not clear and is >rumored< to be biased to raise their own income.

While google is higher profile and would not keep an intentional practice secret for long, it is also not an entirely neutral party.

For example, changing it's algorithms to move businesses lower than other sites (review, blog, forum, etc) may make sense from the user perspective to a degree. But taking that even further works against both the customer and businesses to google's monetary benefit. Then the businesses must purchase SEM from google for searches that were directed at finding the business.

Dropping organic list algorithm changes whenever they hurt SEM profit combined with A/B testing to raise conversion rates/revenue on the advertising could end up with an effective extortion racket simply because that is optimal when you have a monopoly.


I appreciate your viewpoint, but I'll argue that were Google to do that, it still wouldn't be extortion.

There is a ethically a world of difference between:

a.) Having the option of paying to appear higher in the rankings (IIRC Yahoo used to do this way back when) and...

b.) Getting a call from Yelp informing you of some "anonymous" negative review posted about your business, with the offer of "making it go away" in exchange for cash.


I dunno, I'm ok with anonymous reviews, but not false reviews. That's what's being claimed here: that the people leaving the negative reviews were never clients of the carpet cleaning company.

I can't think of a way to weed out the false ones, though, other than to reveal their names and allow them to be sued.


I'm not sure if there's an entity that could be trusted to do this, but if there were, the court could simply have Yelp release the identities of Hadeed's reviewers, and Hadeed's release its customer list, to the same (bonded, or otherwise contractually/legally obligated to maintain privacy) third party. That third party could then LEFT OUTER JOIN the lists, and release to Hadeed's the identities of any parties that have reviewed, but aren't actual customers, without also disclosing the identities of actual customers who've left legitimate negative reviews.

Of course, that might risk revealing the existence of any positive non-customer reviews, and with a company of the sort this one seems to be, I'm not willing to bet that's the empty set.

EDIT: phrasing.


If this were a Federal case rather than a state case, then Hadeed's lawyers could fulfill that role. It is quite common in civil cases for the lawyers for each party to be given access to confidential information of the other party, and they have a legal and ethical obligation to keep it confidential. That includes not sharing it with their client.

If the lawyers see that the reviewers were actually customers, and so a defamation suit against them is not justified on the available evidence, the lawyers would have an obligation under Rule 11(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to not proceed.

Rule 11(b) says:

-------------

Representations to the Court. By presenting to the court a pleading, written motion, or other paper—whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating it—an attorney or unrepresented party certifies that to the best of the person’s knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances:

(1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation;

(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law;

(3) the factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, will likely have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and

(4) the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on belief or a lack of information.

-------------

Lawyers take great care to follow 11(b).


Sounds reasonable. I'm not sure how you prove that Hadeed is giving them the complete list, though.


Yeah, that's the problem. Hadeed could just strip out customers that had negative experiences from their list, and then sue those customers for defamation.


Sorta, IANAL but that would put them into perjury territory which is a huge deal if they get caught. How likely that is depends on how smart they are, but its quite possible. For example, if any of the customers didn't pay in cash thats going to leave a paper trail.


Or has a receipt, or knows some people who could be witnesses for it, or lots of other possibilities. Filing bogus lawsuits is a tried and true intimidation tactic, but perjury is just dumb.


IANAL, but that seems like it would fall under perjury, and it would be way too easy for them to get caught doing it. It seems like if any of the custumers have proof that they were actually customers (e.g. credit card records), then thats the ball game.


What you are describing almost sounds like an opportunity to use a homomorphic cryptosystem.


It sounds like it would be simpler for Yelp if they demanded the reviewer to upload a photo of the receipt. Not the most practical, but a service being reviewed could ask it to be necessary, or visible, and suffer the lack of reviews if that’s too much. Certified reviews could have priority. Some receipts have the name of the waiter; Yelp could point out, without naming, that bad reviews all match a former employee.


In other words, a proof-of-purchase system.


I don't see how that helps people whose carpets have been held "hostage."


It won't, and that's not the point here.

A judge has been asked to prove that seven commentators are actually clients of the service — otherwise, said comments were slander. He or she can't ignore that; more importantly, that accusation is almost systematic from service providers who accuse Yelp of slandering them, presumably with non-existant users, and then racketing them to dismiss said comment (in actually, pay to chose which comment to put first). Having the receipt might help clear common issues: the user got the name of the restaurant wrong, the interaction happened before the owner changed, it happened ‘that night’, etc.

This is far from an isolated case: all services from the distributed economy (eBay, AirBnB, Blablacar, etc.) have to handle trust and find appropriate mechanism. There has been cases of good-grade racketing on eBay; AirBnB has proven fairly good so far; BlablaCar name itself is a great example of a non-binary rating. Hence the discussion.

If users of that service want to get their good back, a small claims court seems more appropriate than a Hacker News thread.


No, the point is that those people can't prove they were customers by presenting a receipt. Should that mean they get to get sued and have to spend time, effort, and money defending themselves in court?


Well it's pretty obvious, isn't it? In order to prove that you were a patron, you can just provide a unique receipt. Yelp can be the anonymizer.

Of course, this requires so many additional layers of complexity (e.g. unique codes, local Yelp POS software, etc)that Yelp would never actually use it--it simply increases the barriers for writing a review. I guess the trick is in implementation. Maybe verifying purchases through transaction clearinghouses?


The key fact here, though, is that the business owner provided no evidence that the reviews were false or created by competitors and didn't dispute the claims made in the reviews. Additionally, it appears that the anonymous reviews made claims that were similar to those made by other, non-anonymous, reviews.


> I dunno, I'm ok with anonymous reviews, but not false reviews.

It sounds like you're not OK with anonymous reviews, even true ones, because you support stripping the reviewers anonymity even in the absence of any evidence that the claims are false. If all I need to get your identity is a bald and unsupported claim that you defamed me, then your review doesn't have a right to anonymity whether it's true or not.


Yeah, I get that. And I agree with you. But there has to be a mechanism to maintain anonymity without enabling anonymous defamation. I just can't think of one. Maybe he has to file a lawsuit against individual anonymous users first, before their identities are revealed?

The reverse of this is that by being anonymous, I can make any claim I want in an online review (he touched me in inappropriate ways!) and there are no consequences. Are there?


(Well, if only you would read the article)

This article specifically talks about the fact that in most states it would be required for them to demonstrate falsity or damages, which they didn't have to do under Virginia law. Without this check such practice can be used to suppress negative reviews since most people wouldn't risk legislation.

And then article says that it's most likely unconstitutional and this is why this case is appealed in Virginia Supreme Court.


If you read the reviews, one of the issues with them is some are from people who had dealings with Hadeed which did not ultimately result in a sale for Hadeed. There are reviewers that state they decided to not have the carpets cleaned after the price change and tactics used. These people if real have a valid opinion of the business from their interactions, however would likely not show up on any customer lists.


How would the carpet company even know, if they don't have their details?


Yelp's response: http://officialblog.yelp.com



On the free speech issue, the majority is clearly wrong, and the dissent is clearly right. I expect either en banc or a higher court to fix this.

Past that, i'm not sure why yelp continues the jurisdictional argument (that VA has no jurisdiction over them).

They have a registered agent in VA, yet claim this does not give VA jurisdiction over them. While there is a split of authority over this across states (with most federal courts holding the states can do this), this is unlikely to be one of the close cases these splits represent.

Yet they continue to press the jurisdictional argument, pissing off every court along the way, while they have 0% chance of winning a jurisdictional challenge at any level (even if the registered agent issue was resolved in their favor, the court would still have jurisdiction over them under other tests).

I have serious trouble understanding this strategy. All it does is make you seem unreasonable, which, for better or worse, increases your chances of losing on the real argument.


Yelp's legal counsel would be incompetent not to attempt a defense which results in the case being thrown out. They must have reason to believe that they have a >0% chance of successfully arguing it.

Additionally, the US justice system is not like a playground: your legal tactics on one case, no matter how distasteful, will have no bearing on the decision of another case. Judges don't think, "hmm, they did some tricky hot-shot lawyering on that other case, time to take 'em down a notch or two!".


"Yelp's legal counsel would be incompetent not to attempt a defense which results in the case being thrown out. They must have reason to believe that they have a >0% chance of successfully arguing it."

False. On both counts. Parties press completely frivolous claism all the time. Pressing frivolous claims does not make you a good lawyer, or competent, nor is it malpractice to avoid making frivolous arguments.

"Additionally, the US justice system is not like a playground: your legal tactics on one case, no matter how distasteful, will have no bearing on the decision of another case. Judges don't think, "hmm, they did some tricky hot-shot lawyering on that other case, time to take 'em down a notch or two!"."

First, both of these are in the same case. Maybe you should read the appeals court decision?

Second, please don't lecture me about the US justice system condescendingly. I'm not sure where you practiced law in the US, but my experience as a US lawyer for many years now tells me this is 100% completely and totally inaccurate, as much as one would like it to not be. Certainly in the federal court system, things tend to be better, but at a state and local level? Please. Judges are not completely objective robotic automatons. If you really think behavior has no impact on decisions, i urge you to rethink this stance.


"your legal tactics on one case, no matter how distasteful, will have no bearing on the decision of another case"

The Prenda Law debacle seems to contradict this, but then again, their WHOLE law firm was based on distasteful tactics, lies, etc.


What does Yelp actually have to furnish? If the "identities" are "John Doe" and throwaway420@gmail.com, are they complying by just handing over that information? Or are they legally obligated to identify the reviewers as real people? What if the reviewers aren't US citizens?


They most likely have to keep login time and IP (terrorist laws and all that); that can lead to the ISP that may or may not be US-based. If it is (and the judge grants a warrant, which appears likely) then you have a narrower base of users to consider. If the comment is from somewhere outside of the US, unless it’s suddenly a trend to cross an ocean to have your carpet cleaned, Yelp would have to consider the possibility that the comments might have been fake, face little legal consequences presumably, and erase those. I know I can be lack creativity, but… trolling a dodgy carpet cleaner half a world away? Seriously? The most convoluted case I'll consider is competition — and ever that seems far-fetched.

Include here a ton of CSI-based scenarii on people using chat-room and web-cafés to communicate convoluted plot via dry-cleaner reviews, over-zelaous investigators and tech wizz using the ‘enhance’ button and green lines bouncing around the globe to trace the actual IP.


Actual people still write real reviews on Yelp?


Well, that's the question in this case :)


Startup idea: comment litigation insurance.


The solution is to stop asking users' email addresses, and for the users to create dummy accounts at mailinator.com and similar sites, if they really have to provide one. Furthermore, VPN+tor is quickly becoming a necessity.

These users should not defame that shop, if it does not deserve that kind of remarks, but the solution is not to get a paper-pushing cunt along with his brutal idiots to terrorize the entire situation. We need a decentralized legal system, not one that centralizes its corruption under the custody of a bunch of depraved politicians who have long learned how to game the election system, which is now fully broken. The broken and backdoored election system no longer justifies anything at all, if it ever has.




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