But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
― William Shakespeare, Othello
Two recent court cases in Virginia could have an effect on Ouray County's restaurants, hotels and motels, and other businesses that are reviewed on popular web sites such as Yelp, Angie's List and others allowing consumer reviews.
Yelp, particularly, has over 600 Federal Trade Commission complaints against it, the majority of which claim the company suppresses good reviews of businesses that do not advertise with them, according to an article in the Washington Post.
One complaint that was ruled on in January by the Virginia Court of Appeals, according to the Washington Times, involved Virginia-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning. Mr. Hadeed demanded the names of seven anonymous reviewers who wrote bad reviews about the cleaning service on Yelp, claiming that none of them were actual customers.
Yelp argued that turning over these names violated the standards of free speech.
The Virginia Court of Appeals agreed that the comments could not be protected First Amendment opinions if the claims were made by people who were not actual customers. The court determined that Hadeed had met the burden of proof that these were not actual customers and ordered Yelp to reveal the identities of the anonymous reviewers.
Yelp issued a statement saying, "We are disappointed that the Virginia Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the internet, and which allows businesses to seek personal details about website users - without any evidence of wrongdoing - in efforts to silence critics."
The judge noted that an anonymous speaker has the right to post reviews without the threat of being revealed just because someone disagrees with him. However, if the company provides sufficient reason to believe a reviewer is not an actual customer, then the company can obtain the identity of anonymous reviewer because First Amendment rights do not protect deliberately false statements.
Used to be when you used a service or patronized a business, you told Uncle Charlie or your friend Bob about your experience. These days, when you go out to dinner or stay at a hotel you go home and fire up the laptop and post your experience on the Internet. Having that voice is not a bad thing at all. As long as you are relating an actual experience.
How much recourse then, does a business have when it suspects a bad review is a false review? What keeps a competitor from tarnishing another business's review page? And how does a business protect itself from libel when a reviewer can remain masked?
Another recent case in Virginia was set to answer some of these questions.
A Fairfax woman struck back at her contractor by posting on several review sites, including Yelp. She ended one post with, "Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor," according to an article in The Washington Post. The contractor didn't take it lightly, filing a $750,000 Internet defamation lawsuit saying the posts were false and cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in business. The woman not only claimed shoddy work but also accused the contractor of being the only one "with a key" when jewelry went missing from her home.
A 2011 study conducted by Harvard Business School on Yelp showed that a one-star increase in rating on Yelp "leads to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue." Clearly, businesses have a lot at stake and much to protect when it comes to online reviews.
In this case, the jury did find the woman guilty of defamation. However, the contractor was also found guilty of defamation due the the replies he posted in response to her posts, including his claim that the woman had "stolen" his services (since she never paid him for the job).
The Post reports that lawsuits involving Yelp posts are increasing as more and more businesses defend against claims. Courts can be more or less sympathetic to a First Amendment defense, and predicting outcomes is a tough bet.
One thing is fairly certain, however. A few unqualified vengeful strokes on a keypad can have long-term effects on a business. And a business's cost to defend itself can be equally damaging.
Alan Todd is co-publisher of the Ouray County Plaindealer. He can be reached at 970-325-2838 or