This week the Supreme Court of Virginia protected consumers’ right to privacy and free speech by agreeing with Yelp that a Virginia court lacked jurisdiction to enforce a subpoena from Hadeed Carpet Cleaning seeking private information about several of our users. If Hadeed wishes to issue a subpoena in the correct jurisdiction of California, we are happy to continue to fight for the rights of these reviewers under the reasonable standards that California courts, and the First Amendment, require (standards we pushed the Virginia courts to adopt). This case highlights the need for stronger online free speech protection in Virginia and across the country, and is a reminder of why Yelp is fighting to expand the protections of consumer free speech and privacy in courts and legislative bodies across the country.
Hadeed undermined its own customers’ free speech rights by trying to force Yelp to reveal their private information based merely on a hunch that they might not be real clients. Fortunately, the right to speak under a pseudonym is constitutionally protected and has long been recognized for the important information it allows individuals to contribute to public discourse. This is also why The Washington Post, Gannett Co. and other media outlets joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press amicus brief, while Google, Twitter, TripAdvisor and Pinterest, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others also argued in favor of our efforts to protect free speech.
Hadeed may still believe those reviews were not from his customers, but he has no evidence of this. In fact, several targeted customers also filed an Amicus brief reiterating that they were actual customers of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning and that their critical reviews were truthful representations of their consumer experiences. They feel strongly enough to come forward to stand by their reviews and share why they feel it’s important for consumers to be able to contribute their opinions online, even under a pseudonym if necessary. In one of these reviewer’s own words:
“Yelp is the standard place for regular citizens to post their experiences about services. The whole point of reviews on the Internet is that you can write your own opinion and other people can read that and make their own decision.
Anonymity helps people express their honest opinions and share their experiences as consumers. I know people who are afraid to post negative reviews online because of retaliation like this. Without negative opinions being available, as consumers we can’t make educated choices. We can read the reviews and either believe them or disregard them.
It seems that Yelp trusts consumers to make decisions on their own.”
Although many reviewers on Yelp are not anonymous — they share their real first name and last initial, personal interests, and photos — it is the right of any consumer to choose to share their truthful experiences anonymously, whether that be for privacy concerns (visiting a therapist, bankruptcy attorney, or plastic surgeon, for example) or for fear of improper retribution from the business. Yelp stepped in to protect these rights and to encourage the establishment of clearer rules in Virginia governing when user information must be disclosed.
Businesses that want to bully and intimidate customers who express displeasure with less than stellar consumer experiences should not be able to obtain their personal information without providing sufficient evidence that they have been wronged, which Hadeed failed to do in this case.
Thanks to the attention drawn to Hadeed Carpet Cleaning through this court case (an ironic principle known as the Streisand Effect), many more consumers now know of the negative reputation this business has earned. That’s why litigation isn’t a good substitute for customer service, and businesses considering using the courts as a weapon against their customers should consider responding to them with Yelp’s free tools and providing improved service instead.