Court fight could give angry carpet cleaners right to unmask Yelp users

Public Citizen, a nonprofit citizens' advocacy group, has urged the Virginia Court of Appeals to uphold the privacy rights of seven users of the consumer review service Yelp. The Public Citizen Press Room said on Wednesday that a Washington, D.C. area carpet-cleaning company should not be able to find out identifying information about allegedly dissatisfied customers who gave the company bad reviews.

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, Inc. is a private company operating in the D.C. area with a well-known promotional campaign that advertises a basic carpet cleaning for $99. However, reviewers on Yelp noted that more often than not, the $99 offer is a ruse. Customers complained that they would drop carpets off for cleaning and then return to find themselves saddled with a bevy of other fees. The company even reportedly refused to surrender the carpets to the owners until the full list of incidental fees was paid off.

The company sued Yelp demanding to know the identity of seven users that Hadeed claimed they could not match to anyone in their database of past and present customers. Alleging that the ads were fake ones placed by a rival company, Hadeed announced its intention to sue the seven anonymous reviewers for defamation.

The website TechDirt said, "(M)any courts have adopted the so-called Dendrite rules for identifying anonymous speakers. The rules require giving the anonymous users a chance to respond and (more importantly) require the plaintiff to present enough evidence to prove there's an actual case."

The Virginia court that originally heard the case did not abide by that precedent, but rather allowed Hadeed to subpoena the information from Yelp about the reviewers' identities. Yelp refused to comply and has been found in contempt of court.

Public Citizen urged the Virginia Court of Appeals to hear Yelp out, arguing that allowing companies to take action against anonymous users undercuts U.S. First Amendment rights to anonymous speech.

"The main question on appeal in this case is whether the trial court applied the proper legal standard in overriding the First Amendment rights of the anonymous speakers," said Public Citizen. "Courts elsewhere have recognized that before stripping the defendant of a First Amendment right, they should take an early look at the case to confirm that the speaker’s statement appears to be false and defamatory, such that the company’s claim is viable. In this appeal, where the users’ original claims about Hadeed’s practices are echoed by dozens of other users whose reviews have not been challenged as defamatory, Yelp urges Virginia to adopt that approach."

Public Citizen describes itself as "the people’s voice in the nation’s capital." Its mission, according to the Public Citizen website is "(t)o ensure that all citizens are represented in the halls of power."

[Man silenced with duct tape via]