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Privacy The Courts The Media United States

Court Rules Against Online Anonymity 314

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the turns-out-anonymous-coward-is-a-cat dept.
cstacy writes "The Virginia Court of Appeals has ruled (PDF) that people leaving negative feedback for a carpet cleaning service are not allowed to remain anonymous. Yelp must unmask seven critics to the carpet cleaner, who feels that they might not even be real customers."
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Court Rules Against Online Anonymity

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  • by Chris Mattern (191822) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:28PM (#45907217)

    "Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books
    have played an important role in the progress of mankind.
    Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout
    history have been able to criticize the oppressive practices
    and laws either anonymously or not at all... It is plain
    that anonymity has sometimes been assumed for the most
    constructive purposes."

        --Hugo Black, Tally v. California, 1960

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:40PM (#45907355)

    Libel has never been a constitutional right. If someone makes a libelous statement, hiding behind anonymity, then the other party is free to investigate who made the statement. No company's terms of service can override the law.

  • by SJHillman (1966756) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:48PM (#45907467)

    A few companies, at least in New York, have gotten in trouble for fake positive reviews.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/23/new-york-fake-online-reviews-yoghurt [theguardian.com]

  • by naasking (94116) <naasking@gmail.EEEcom minus threevowels> on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:12PM (#45907719) Homepage

    That quote refers to anonymity from the government. It's not clear that anonymity whem commenting on corprations or people have the same protections due to libel laws.

  • Re:Escrow of sorts (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:25PM (#45907885)

    A critical post on the internet is not the same thing as a criminal accusation.

  • by DRJlaw (946416) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:38PM (#45908005)

    "Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a
    person's opinion about a business that they patronized. See Tharpe, 285 Va. at 481, 737 S.E.2d
    at 893. But this general protection relies upon an underlying assumption of fact: that the reviewer
    was a customer of the specific company and he posted his review based on his personal
    experience with the business. If this underlying assumption of fact proves false, in that the
    reviewer was never a customer of the business, then the review is not an opinion; instead, the
    review is based on a false statement of fact -- that the reviewer is writing his review based on
    personal experience. And "'there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.'" Id.
    (quoting Gertz, 418 U.S. at 340).

    Here, Hadeed attached sufficient evidence to its subpoena duces tecum indicating that it
    made a thorough review of its customer database to determine whether all of the Yelp reviews
    were written by actual customers. After making such a review, Hadeed discovered that it could
    not match the seven Doe defendants' reviews with actual customers in its database. Thus, the
    evidence presented by Hadeed was sufficient to show that the reviews are or may be defamatory,
    if not written by actual customers of Hadeed. Moreover, Hadeed sought the subpoena duces
    tecum under the legitimate, good faith belief that the Doe defendants were not former customers,
    and, therefore, their reviews were defamatory."

        -- William G. Petty, this case. 2014.

  • by CppDeveloper (829095) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:44PM (#45908073)

    I had the same initial reaction then I actually read the article...

    It is not as clear cut as it seems. The man is able to map most commenters to identified customers but the seven identified in the suit are exceptions. His contention is that they are NOT customers and are making fraudulent statements bringing it under libel law instead of free speach. Apparently he was able to provide convincing evidence to the judge.

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:59PM (#45908329) Homepage Journal

    Right, and since now posting negative reviews can get you sued, what will happen?

    What's getting these reviewers sued isn't negative reviews, but negative comments about a product they may have no experience whatever with. From TFA:

    The Virginia Court of Appeals agreed this week, ruling that the comments were not protected First Amendment opinions if the Yelp users were not customers and thus were making false claims.

    You have no 1st amendment right to spread lies about me. If I write a negative review of a product I've never seen, that's libel. If I write a negative review of something I actually used, I'm in the clear.

  • by Unordained (262962) <unordained_slash ... @pseudotheos.com> on Thursday January 09, 2014 @02:50PM (#45909141) Homepage

    Defamation laws, as far as I see, only cover the negatives, not the positives. You can have all the fake praise you like, as long as there's no fake complaint. Statements of "our service is great" are not the same as "my experience was terrible" -- there's an expectation that vague statements from a company may be misleading (bluster) while not really wrong in a verifiable sense, but with specific customer stories, we expect them to be accurate, fact-based. Ads may use actors, but they generally have fine-print identifying them as interpretations of, re-enactments of, or syntheses of multiple, actual customer letters.

  • by Obfuscant (592200) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:01PM (#45909291)

    I would juxtapose that with the advertisements these very same businesses often use with "Fake" customers (actors)

    "Actor portrayal" or "paid endorsement". The FTC has this covered.

    But now, do you have proof that this carpet business hires people to pretend to be customers in ads? If not, then you are condemning them for something they did not do.

    I do not see how this is any different that the very same businesses fraudulent claims in advertising.

    You have now made a formal accusation of fraudulent advertising against a specific company. You further use this unsupported allegation as proof that their competitors should be able to lie about this company anonymously with impunity in a direct attempt at damaging the business.

    The quotes above from the case are spot on. They show a company that has made best effort to discover the truth of the anonymous claims on their own and are seeking information about only seven "people" who have made allegations, much as you have, that cannot be substantiated without knowing who they are. Libel is not protected speech. End of story.

  • by Anomalyst (742352) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:17PM (#45909521)
    Corporations ARE the governent. Welcome to America.
  • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:42PM (#45909841)

    Ok, lets check them out then:
    C- with the BBB
    34 complaints, 2 unresolved
    http://www.bbb.org/washington-dc-eastern-pa/business-reviews/carpet-and-rug-cleaners/hadeed-carpet-cleaning-inc-in-alexandria-va-9331/ [bbb.org]

    Here's one of their commercials, seemingly libeling every other carpet cleaner in the area:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jmr3F2bmyyc [youtube.com]

    Here's some fake customers, and no "Paid actors" warning:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24KaJugEcSE [youtube.com]

    So again, if they can lie about how good they are, lie about how bad everyone else is, then why can't other people lie about how bad they are?

    I think Libelous speech should be protected, despite the supreme courts previous rulings.

  • by Bacon Bits (926911) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:51PM (#45909961)

    Defamation laws, as far as I see, only cover the negatives, not the positives.

    Defamation covers the negatives. Fraud and false advertising covers the positives. If testimonials or endorsements are made then they are regulated [ftc.gov]. You can't legally advertise a false testimonial.

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