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The Courts Businesses Electronic Frontier Foundation

Appeals Court Clears Yelp of Extortion Claims 63

Posted by timothy
from the 5-stars-for-marsha-berzon dept.
jfruh writes A U.S. appeals court cleared Yelp of charges of extortion related to its interaction with several small businesses who claim Yelp demanded that they pay for advertising or face negative reviews. While Yelp says it never altered a business rating for money, the court's finding was instead based on a strict reading of the U.S. extortion law, classifying Yelp's behavior as, at most, "hard bargaining." Interestingly, the EFF supported Yelp here, arguing that "Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) protects online service providers from liability and lawsuits over user-generated content, except in very narrow circumstances where the providers created or developed content themselves. In its amicus brief, EFF argued that mere conjecture about contributing content – like there was in this case – is not enough to allow a lawsuit to go forward."
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Appeals Court Clears Yelp of Extortion Claims

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Sure wouldn't want something to happen to it.... like no customers showing up again, ever!

    • by careysub (976506)

      Not extortion, no siree!

      The Mob is actually a benevolent society, concerned about the well being of local businesses.

      • Do you want proactive insurance or reactive insurance? The mob sells the former. You pay to prevent something bad from happening. If you pay enough your competition might even leave town. There is the long term issue where the mob completely takes over your business. This reminds me of in the Godfather the Godfather says "A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns."

  • by qbast (1265706) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @08:06AM (#47815841)
    "unless a person has a pre-existing right to be free of the threatened economic harm, threatening economic harm to induce a person to pay for a legitimate service is not extortion," appeals court judge Marsha Berzon wrote in the decision."

    So apparently nobody has pre-existing right to be free of smear campaign on Yelp.
    • Well, actually, when you put it that way, it actually makes this sound like the right ruling. They have a site that they allow negative reviews of things all the time. And if they didn't have the protection racket, they could still aggregate negative reviews legally.

      So, the main problem here is that you can't trust yelp not to be a pile of lies. Paid reviewers. Paid review removals. So much conflict of interest that you have no hope of getting a genuine assessment of a business.

      • by sumdumass (711423)

        My understanding was that yelp was paying people to post negetive reviews until they got their advertising contract.

        However, it appears the court (EFF) didn't understand that and thought all the reviewers were regular people and not agents of yelp.

        This might not be over.

    • by tomhath (637240)
      Of course they have that right. Don't use Yelp.
    • The way you put it seems to reinforce the decision on first amendment grounds; you dont have a "right" that prevents me from saying bad things about your business.

      But, I do feel like that changes once I start requesting money to stop doing so.

    • by MobyDisk (75490)

      So apparently nobody has pre-existing right to be free of smear campaign on Yelp.

      True. Just like on Slashdot. I could post that qbast provided terrible service, and Slashdot cannot be compelled to remove it. I'm thankful for that.

      • by qbast (1265706)
        Have you missed the extortion part? Slashdot refusing to censor comments on my request is a bit different from Slashdot asking me to pay or they will make sure they will be lot of defamatory comments.
        • by MobyDisk (75490)

          Have you missed the extortion part?

          Nope. It's in the article right here:

          The plaintiffs lacked the factual evidence to support their claims of extortion, the appeals court said.

          So there was no extortion par, which is why Yelp won the case. Yelp was not doing what the business owners claimed Yelp was doing.

          Slashdot refusing to censor comments on my request is a bit different from Slashdot asking me to pay or they will make sure they will be lot of defamatory comments.

          I assume by "make sure there will be a lot of defamatory comments" you are implying that they (Yelp, or Slashdot in the hypothetical) is either making the defamatory comments themselves or paying someone to do so. But there was no evidence of that.

  • Good... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @08:09AM (#47815857) Journal
    As much as I think Yelp are a bunch of abhuman bottom feeders who would do the world a favor if they caught fire, I am pleased by this one.

    Section 230 is a vital defense against a truly hellish legal climate on the internet, and I'd hate to see it be chipped away during a fight against an unsympathetic defendant.
    • I agree with the tone of your post, but isnt what yelp does more along the lines of "oh gee, there are negative reviews that we've encouraged; we can make them go away for money"? That seems a lot closer to extortion than "there happened to be some negative reviews out there, and we'll see if we can improve people's opinion of you for money".

      • Oh, believe me, I'd love to see some absolutely ruthless discovery through every last scrap of material that passed through Yelp's shakedown/ad sales division over the years. It'd be almost as good, and a lot more legal, than just locking their HQ and setting it on fire.

        However, I just Don't Even Want To Think about how awful the internet would be without Section 230. Even by the somewhat unimpressive standards of the takedown-laden world of DMCA safe harbor, life without 230 would be a killing field.
  • by brunes69 (86786) <slashdot@NospAm.keirstead.org> on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @08:11AM (#47815877) Homepage

    Yelp used to be my go-to app for restaurant reviews when in another city, but I find the quality of content on it has gone WAY downhill with things being very stale. While on a recent vacation, on THREE separate occasions Yelp sent me to a store that was closed, some of them for months.

    Personally, I have switched to the Tripadvisor app, where I find the content is much more highly curated and the community is much more active.

    • by sycodon (149926)

      Yep,

      You have no way of knowing who is posting reviews on Yelp. Is it the business owners? Their competitors? Is it some customer who didn't get their bread sticks in time? Or, is it the crap that is alleged in the lawsuit?

      Better to start with TripAdvisor. If you want REALLY good reviews, then the Michelin Guide.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Who could even trust a company that has no bad reviews? I find it impossible for any establishment to be universally liked, even if the sample group is only people who would both go to that business and post on Yelp.

    Personally, the bad reviews are where I look to find out the worst parts of a product or business, and if their worst parts aren't really so bad then I'm more likely to buy.

    • by Sentrion (964745)

      I've found that if a business only has three or four reviews, and the three good reviews sound like a paid testimonial and one review is very negative, I sometimes veer from doing business with that company unless there is another way to gauge their service and business practices. I've seen too many cases where positive reviews are very polished and seem to echo the company's mission and values statements instead of giving an honest assessment of the quality of their services or trustworthiness. Now if th

    • by roc97007 (608802)

      Who could even trust a company that has no bad reviews? I find it impossible for any establishment to be universally liked, even if the sample group is only people who would both go to that business and post on Yelp.

      Personally, the bad reviews are where I look to find out the worst parts of a product or business, and if their worst parts aren't really so bad then I'm more likely to buy.

      Not only true for companies. I do a lot of shopping on Amazon. (It beats having to drive around looking for what I need.) I judge whether to buy based partly on the reviews. Of a wide range of manufacturers for a particular product, I will drop from consideration the products where many people have thoughtful, factual reviews about why the product is trash, but I will also reject the products with three or four overly glowing reviews and nothing else. You get a feeling for what astroturf sounds like.

      Yo

  • by grasshoppa (657393) <skennedy.tpno-co@org> on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @08:25AM (#47815963) Homepage

    I support a business who has been targeted by yelp, and it's not pleasant. I can't prove anything, but shortly after turning the abusive sales troll down, we started getting negative reviews. Look up the users making the reviews, and it seems they have a history of making negative reviews. What's more, most reviews were factually and demonstrably inaccurate. We couldn't find any of these users in our system, so we knew they weren't customers.

    Now sure, they could have been normal trolls out to do what trolls do, but it just seemed too coincidental that they started popping up after we turned down a business relationship with yelp. Meanwhile, our customers' positive reviews would often never show up on yelp due to their algorithm.

    The obvious solution to this entire headache is to dissuade family and friends from using yelp, spread the word far and wide that they are dishonest in their policies and that companies can pay for reviews. As "family IT", we have far more authority than yelp could ever hope for.

    • by swb (14022)

      If Yelp has salespeople it's very easy to see that the salespeople have a motivation to punish businesses that don't play ball and they can do it without involving Yelp-the-company at all, by either doing it themselves or by farming it out if they worry about it getting linked back to them.

      This seems to be one of those "plausible deniability" kind of rackets where the company has sales people who only get paid if they make sales and an official policy against doing something shady to obtain those sales, yet

    • most reviews were factually and demonstrably inaccurate

      That's different. That's open-and-shut libel, which yelp is liable for publishing. Cheap cease and desist letters might help.
      (Not a lawyer, though).

      • by DRJlaw (946416)

        That's different. That's open-and-shut libel, which yelp is liable for publishing.

        ...which yelp is not liable for publishing, since the very summary that you supposedly read points out that "Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) protects online service providers from liability and lawsuits over user-generated content, except in very narrow circumstances where the providers created or developed content themselves."

        (Not a lawyer, though).

        Which explains why your conclusion is exactly the opposit

    • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

      by tapspace (2368622)

      We couldn't find any of these users in our system, so we knew they weren't customers.

      That is demonstrably poor reasoning. Anyone who puts their real name on yelp is an idiot.

      What's more, most reviews were factually and demonstrably inaccurate.

      Specious, and you've already demonstrated specious reasoning.

      I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you sound like a bad business owner, or in this case your friend is a bad business owner. You're demonstrating the telltale signs. Bad business owners often have a difficulty accepting responsibility. Bad business owners twist the facts to support their own side (you've stated that it not possible that these reviewe

      • It's not at all about you, is it?

        At issue is the valid concern that Yelp has compromised itself.

        I think it has and I recommend that people forget about Yelp and go elsewhere for reviews.

        Your post is irrelevant crap.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Completely agree about getting filtered for writing one single review. I wrote a negative review of a local restaurant (Rochester, MN area) because the experience there was so bad that it prompted me to actually create a Yelp account. That review was filtered for some time until I decided to start reviewing other businesses (particularly restaurants as my wife and I like to dine out). Once I posted other reviews, then my review of the first business showed up.

        • by rgbscan (321794) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @09:32AM (#47816429) Homepage

          As someone with quite a bit of Yelp experience, the filter doesn't just filter out people with a single bad review, it also looks at the distribution of the sum of all the reviews on that account. Generally, over time with enough reviews, each user generally falls into a similar pattern systemwide with a pretty regular curve of rating scores distributed over the reviews. Anything deviating from that curve more than 'x' amount gets filtered (it's secret so you can't game it). It's pretty pronounced and predictable - so the sourpusses that leave nothing but bad reviews get filtered no matter how many they write. Same with the people that leave nothing but glowing reviews.

          In my personal experience, the small businesses claiming that Yelp or a competitor are targeting them with bad reviews are full of it. I just go look up their BBB score and almost always see the same types of complaints against the business there. There generally is agreement between a trip advisor rating and a yelp score as well. Sometimes its hard for people to look at their operation and realize they truly do suck. You see it all the time on those reality shows called "Kitchen Disasters" or "Save my Restaurant" with that foreign chap from Hell's Kitchen. They always think they are rock stars and have no idea why their business is failing when dude shows up.

          I have yet to come across a business with multiple well-written (a couple of paragraphs with concrete examples) bad reviews that were legitimately attacks and falsehoods made up by competitors. Granted it's possible, but in my multiple years as a yelper "elite" and with the ~500 or so reviews I've written, I haven't seen it. When people take the time to leave lengthy negative reviews, they are usually legit.

          • by Sentrion (964745)

            I have yet to come across a business with multiple well-written (a couple of paragraphs with concrete examples) bad reviews that were legitimately attacks and falsehoods made up by competitors. Granted it's possible, but in my multiple years as a yelper "elite" and with the ~500 or so reviews I've written, I haven't seen it. When people take the time to leave lengthy negative reviews, they are usually legit.

            If you were to visit a prison you would find that over 90% of the prisoners shouldn't be there and don't belong there. They were innocent. Every prison I visited was the same. When I spoke to prisoners they all had sound alibis, witnesses, and other evidence that either wasn't allowed to be presented to the jury or the prosecution twisted the facts just to convict them. Many others chose to take plea deals because they knew that prosecutors were like that and would just manipulate the jury to convict th

      • While people have an inborn desire to see their own actions as right, and therefore the actions of others that conflict with it as wrong, I think your reasoning is flawed. Grasshoppa made some statements that implied information on which he based his decision but he didn't get into the details here on Slashdot. Since he didn't provide the proof of what he said, you labeled him as engaging in "specious reasoning." I think your reasoning is where the specious comes in.

        Here, let me give you some concrete e

        • Thank you; yes, you are describing exactly what we saw, and continue to see. The business name is an amalgam of the owners, but one of the owners is never out at one of our remote locations, and never has been. Never the less, we have multiple bad reviews bad mouthing that provider, talking about treatment that we don't handle at any of our locations.

          It's a shady operation, pure and simple. The more people that I can make aware of that, the better.

  • by HockeyPuck (141947) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @08:50AM (#47816115)

    My neighbor runs a small mom/pop type restaurant and he gets called about once a month by a yelp representative. He's got plenty of positive reviews on Yelp, but what they tell him is that if he pays yelp, they'll move the negative ones to the "not recommended reviews" list. Normally the only way to see this list is to scroll to the bottom and see a light grey link.

    How is this any different from what the mafia did with it's "Pay for protection" schemes...?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      How is this any different from what the mafia did with it's "Pay for protection" schemes...?

      It's a threat to commit libel. Since libel is nearly unenforceable except when the victim is a unknown individual who was economically or physically harmed in a way that they can prove was the intent of the liar, there is no relevant enforcement. Yes, simply having a company name means you are no longer legally protected against libel and slander.
      So, since it is a threat to commit an act that there is no legal recourse against, there is no legal recourse against the threat. It is like if I found you on a

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      How is this any different from what the mafia did with it's "Pay for protection" schemes...?

      Users post bad reviews, Yelp is offering to hide them, i.e. protection from Yelp users. The mafia sent goons to smash places up, or rather the protection they were offering was from themselves.

      It's a subtle distinction because Yelp does little to vet reviews, so is basically allowing rivals to use their platform to attack your business. Apparently this distinction is enough though.

      • by tompaulco (629533)
        So it's an offer of conspiracy to destroy evidence. Whoever pays the most money gets the most negative reviews hidden. Once starting down this road, there is no logical end. If your competitor pays more money, they may unhide some of your negative reviews. You can compensate somewhat by doing better business and not having as many negative reviews. But let's face it, no matter how good a job you do, there is always a few customers who are bound and determined to be unhappy.
    • by MobyDisk (75490)

      What is different is that the Mafia was charging for protection, but they were also the ones perpetrating the crime. Yelp is not writing the negative reviews. The real issue here is that Yelp offers the ability to remove the negative reviews at all. Not that they charge for them.

  • If they don't change this, I'll give the US legal system a bad review
  • A friend of mine used to work at Yelp When he did, I asked him about this. (Accusations of cooked yelp reviews are far from a recent development.) For whatever itâ(TM)s worth⦠but I have no reason to suspect he was lying to me⦠he told me that sales and operations absolutely ARE firewalled from each other, that by no means do the sales types have the necessary administrative or database access to adjust a business' ratings, and that theyâ(TM)re not the sharpest tools in th

  • Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) protects online service providers from liability and lawsuits over user-generated content, except in very narrow circumstances where the providers created or developed content themselves.

    Should that protection apply if Yelp charges to remove negative reviews? At that point, it the site still user-generated content? Suppose there were 1000 anonymous monkeys adding negative reviews of Slashdot, and positive reviews of Slashdot. Then Yelp charges Slashdot to remove the negative reviews. Can Yelp still claim that the site is nothing but user generated content? That's a slippery slope...

    Imagine that Yelp merely took the sentences from people's reviews, and charged to remove the negative sent

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