An appellate court decision about the online biz review site Yelp has many consumers up in arms. A San Francisco court ruled this month that the Yelp has the right, but not the obligation, to charge businesses to push positive reviews up, and negative reviews down. This recent decision by the 9th Circuit Court follows an appeal from a lower court decision that also said, in a nutshell, that Yelp is a commercial for-profit entity that has a right to set a price to display favorable reviews, and that the businesses being reviewed do not have a right to a positive review. While Yelp adamantly maintains that they have never given higher ratings to paying clients (despite much criticism to the contrary from small business owners who say their positive reviews disappeared when they refused to pay Yelp), the decision was viewed as a victory for online review sites like Yelp who may wish to engage in a “pay for play” with small business who pay for preferential treatment.
Critics say such decisions will have a chilling effect on the democratic voice of the web, where even the biggest corporations can’t hide from the “little guy” with a valid complaint to share with anyone who will listen. The online community provides a massive forum for people with complaints, both legitimate and illegitimate, to voice their displeasure with a company to be heard world-wide. If companies are able to stifle complaining voices of dissent, the story goes, then Big Business will be able to silence complaints by writing a check, while small business will still be subject to having their entire business destroyed by one online bashing from a disgruntled customer.
As an attorney, I view the decision by the court largely as one of common sense. While Yelp may protest that they do not engage in the business of sanitizing the reviews of companies who also happen to be paying them a monthly fee, it should come as no surprise that a for-profit business has a legal right to choose what methods are used to determine which reviews are posted on their own site, whether they stand to make a profit or not. Likewise, I don’t think any group of small businesses with a bunch of negative anonymous reviews posted online about them have a right to force any website to only include the “good” ones, under the threat of legal action. That seems to go against the freedom of expression we have come to expect online, maybe even more than any right a company like Yelp has to hide positive reviews unless a business customer pays a fee.
Personally, I take any online review I read (especially from “anonymous” posters that may have a personal vendetta against a business) with a grain of salt, and you should too. For every valid complaint shining light on a bad business practice, there is another anonymous post railing against a business that was actually written by a competitor to the business. You should never put stock into any anonymous review without considering the motives of the person who wrote it, and the motives of the businesses who want it hidden from the light of day.