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Yelp Businesses Have No Right to the Identity of Bad Critics

Public Citizen went before the Collin County, Texas, District Court in January to argue for an anonymous Yelp user's right to privacy. When The Rhodes Group, a Collin County Texas real estate firm, received a negative review from an anonymous customer with the username Lin L., it sued, alleging defamation and requesting disclosure of her identity.

Lin L. posted a review calling a Rhodes agent “the most deceitful and money greedy sales agent you would ever deal with.” Lin L.'s review urged that dealing with The Rhodes Group was “the worst experience” and that the agent’s “sales pitch [was] bogus.”

The Rhodes Team suspected that Lin L. is not even a real person, but is instead perhaps a rival business looking to drive away the customers of competing businesses.

Interestingly, Lin L.'s review is no longer listed on Yelp, although other reviews remain on The Rhodes Group's Yelp page dating all the way back to 2012. It is unclear whether her negative post has been removed in light of the impending lawsuit. Yelp does state above review on every page: "Your trust is our top concern, so businesses cannot pay to alter or remove their reviews." Neither Yelp, Public Citizen, or The Rhodes Group have commented on the removal of Lin L.'s negative review.

Not disclose identity

Public Citizen attorney Paul Levy, who is representing Yelp, believes a real estate firm garnering a bad review on a social media website cannot justify the disclosure of the identity of its critic. Rhodes, which did not file the suit until well over a year after the bad review was posted, specifically

  • Requested a subpoena identifying Lin L. and seeking further information from her. Additionally
  • Alleged defamation due to the "false and defamatory comments."

On behalf of Yelp, which wants to protect the identity of its users, Public Citizen argued that The Rhodes Group "failed to meet the constitutional requirements for stripping a speaker of the First Amendment right to speak anonymously by not providing any evidence showing that the statement made was false."

According to its website, "Public Citizen maintains that the Rhodes Group's claim violates the one-year statute of limitation for libel suits and, additionally, that the subpoena was issued in the wrong state and therefore cannot be enforced by the Texas court."

First Amendment shield

The Rhodes Group, upon originally filing suit against Yelp, issued a Texas subpoena, which was served on Yelp’s registered agent in Dover, Delaware. “You can’t use the First Amendment as a shield to make false and defamatory statements about an individual, particularly in a commercial arena,” The Rhodes Group's attorney, Robert Wilson, said.

Yelp objected to the subpoena, and The Rhodes Group moved to compel. Public Citizen opposed the motion on the ground that Yelp can only be subpoenaed in California, but the argument was heard before the Collin County Texas Court two weeks ago.

Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group, "advocates for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed." Public Citizen has argued for a wide array of changes for the United States, including:

  • Banning BP from participating in federal contracts.
  • Stopping the offshoring of jobs.
  • Unambiguous standards for nonprofit political activity.
  • Ethics in clinical trials.
  • Climate change legislation.
  • Strong public safeguards.
  • Victims of robo-calls.
  • Safe prescription drugs.
  • Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

You can read the Collin County Texas District Court's order in the case, Wages v. Lin L via this document. The Rhodes Group's motion to compel, motion for sanctions, and subpoena were all denied, protecting Lin. L's identity and thus, the identity of all Yelp users. According to CW33 News, this case boils down to the principle that "free speech is okay, but you better be honest. With the online world and real world clashing more and more often, this is an issue that isn’t going anywhere."

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