Yelpers beware — your anonymous reviews might not remain anonymous if someone charges you with defamation and hauls your ass to court. In an appeal decision handed down this week, Bloomberg reports that a California state appeals court ruled that websites that host online reviews can indeed be forced identify anonymous reviewers if a review they submitted leads to a defamation lawsuit.
The case relates to an anonymous, critical review left on the Yelp website of Newport Beach-based accountants Montagna & Associates, Inc.
To answer your first, obvious question, what was the Yelp review that set off this lawsuit? According to Page 4 of the Montagna, et al vs. Yelp, Inc. court filing, here is that review:
Too bad there is no zero star option! I made the mistake of using them and had an absolute nightmare. Bill was way more than their quote; return was so sloppy I had another firm redo it and my return more than doubled. If you dare to complain get ready to be screamed at, verbally harassed and threatened with legal action. I chalked it up as a very expensive lesson, hope this spares someone else the same.
The reviewer is quite prescient in in predicting “legal action”! That review, by the way, remains posted online.
San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation had signed on in defense of Yelp keeping the user anonymous, and released a statement earlier today. “We applaud Yelp for fighting a bad court decision and standing up for its users in the face of court sanctions,” the advocacy group said in their statement. “After finding that Yelp could argue on behalf of its anonymous reviewer, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that Yelp nevertheless had to turn over information about its user on grounds that the review contained defamatory statements about the accountant.”
There is an extremely small likelihood that any business would ever try to sue you for defamation over a Yelp review. Furthermore, the court ruling does allow Yelp to keep any negative review posted online. But there is now the possibility that a Yelp review, or any online review which does not use your full legal name, could eventually expose your full legal name if your review crosses the line from negative opinion to submitting a factually false statement.