It’s every business owner’s worst nightmare: dissatisfied customer takes to the internet and writes a scathing review on Yelp, possibly hurting new business or scaring away potential clients or even investors and vendors. Worse yet, the review itself may be fabricated, and unless the bad review breaks Yelp’s posting rules, there is typically very little the business owner can do except to respond to the reviewer in the same forum. This may change now that a recent court case has found its way to the California Supreme Court. Prior to the appeal that landed it in the upper court’s docket, two lower judges ruled in favor of the plaintiff who successfully sued to have a bad review removed from Yelp as defamatory.
What this means for you:
Before you hit the “Release the Lawyers!” speed dial on your phone it may be worth waiting to see what the Supreme Court has to say on this. I have spoken with many folks who are sympathetic or even empathetic to the plaintiff’s side in this case. They feel helpless to counter what they see as spiteful and vengeful reviews on Yelp and other review sites, especially when there seems no recourse to address the customer or have dishonest or misleading posts removed or even reviewed for accuraccy. As you can imagine, Yelp and several other Internet companies are watching this very closely. According to them, it could lead to a very chilling effect on crowd-sourced reviews, and if the hyperbole is to be believed, could even impact free speech. At minimum, we can hope it will lead to innovation, new thinking or a cultural shift that will add accountability to the type of free speech that the internet enables, and possibly even diminish the size of the “soap box” it grants to the more radical or dangerous fringes of the internet.