HADEED: Protecting small businesses from online defamation

Publication of false customer reviews on Yelp is not free speech

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Back in 1955, when a customer brought a rug to Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, it would be hand-cleaned in my family’s driveway.

Today, we still clean carpets with the same care and attention, but we’ve grown quite a lot over the decades, and now serve more than 30,000 residential and commercial customers a year. That’s quite a bit more volume than the old family driveway could have handled.

I like to think our story is pretty special because it is the story of my own family, but I know that our story is like that of hundreds of thousands of successful American small businesses.

Small businesses account for more than half of all U.S. jobs, and we take pride in the part we play in making our economy strong.

I expect that most small-business owners feel a very personal stake in their reputations among their customers and in their communities. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that many American small-businesses owners like me are deeply offended when we confront fraudulent and defamatory reviews on websites such as Yelp.

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning decided to fight for its good reputation when a group of suspicious, negative reviews about our business appeared on Yelp. Like any other business, we’ve had occasional negative reviews when a customer had an experience that was not up to our usual high standards.

In those cases, we responded to the customer and tried our best to fix what went wrong. We’re proud that more than 65 percent of our business comes from repeat customers and referrals.

A couple of years ago, however, a group of negative Yelp reviewers with suspiciously similar criticisms didn’t answer our attempts to reach them, and after we searched through our records, we concluded that they probably never were customers at all.

We sent a letter to Yelp in June 2012 asking them to help us determine if these reviewers were real customers. We were disappointed when Yelp refused to help clear up the issue. They left us no choice but to bring a lawsuit if we wanted to protect our good reputation.

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning filed suit for defamation in Alexandria Circuit Court in July 2012 against the anonymous group of “John Doe” reviewers. We fully support the constitutional right of all Americans to anonymous free speech, but defamation is not protected speech.

Virginia is one of several states with a carefully considered “unmasking” law: an anonymous speaker can be named if there is enough evidence of defamation or other unlawful speech.

Because we had good-faith evidence of defamation, an Alexandria Circuit Court judge granted a subpoena of Yelp’s records to obtain the names of the anonymous reviewers.

Yelp refused to comply. It challenged the subpoena in Alexandria Circuit Court and was found in contempt of court by a second judge.

Yelp appealed the contempt order to the Appeals Court of Virginia, which supported the conclusion of the two circuit judges that Yelp must comply with the subpoena.

“If … 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,” Judge William Petty wrote in the court’s decision. A real customer’s opinion is protected speech; false statements by non-customers are not.

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