Yelp warns Cal­i­for­nia law­suit could scrub crit­i­cal re­views

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Sud­hin Thanawala

Yelp.com is warn­ing that a Cal­i­for­nia law­suit tar­get­ing crit­i­cal posts about a law firm could lead to the re­moval of neg­a­tive re­views and leave con­sumers with a skewed as­sess­ment of restau­rants and other busi­nesses.

Lawyer Dawn Has­sell said the busi­ness re­view web­site is ex­ag­ger­at­ing the stakes of her le­gal ef­fort, which aims only to re­move from Yelp lies, not just neg­a­tive state­ments, that dam­aged the rep­u­ta­tion of her law firm.

Though its im­pact is in dis­pute, the case is get­ting at­ten­tion from some of the big­gest In­ter­net com­pa­nies in the world, which say a rul­ing against Yelp could sti­fle free speech on­line and ef­fec­tively gut other web­sites whose main func­tion is of­fer­ing con­sumers re­views of ser­vices and busi­nesses.

A San Fran­cisco judge de­ter­mined the posts were defam­a­tory and or­dered the com­pany to re­move them two years ago, which a sec­ond judge and a state ap­peals court up­held.

Yelp is ask­ing the state Supreme Court to over­turn the or-

der. The high court faces an Oct. 14 dead­line to de­cide whether to hear the case or let the lower-court rul­ing stand. Ex­perts ex­pect Yelp to pre­vail.

“There were a lot of peo­ple who were un­happy about this opin­ion,” said Eric Gold­man, co-di­rec­tor of the High Tech Law In­sti­tute at Santa Clara Uni­ver­sity School of Law.

In­ter­net giants Face­book, Twit­ter and Mi­crosoft said in a let­ter to the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court last month that the rul­ing “rad­i­cally de­parts from a large, unan­i­mous and set­tled body of fed­eral and state court prece­dent” and could be used to “si­lence a vast quan­tity of pro­tected and im­por­tant speech.”

Yelp said it would give busi­nesses un­happy about neg­a­tive re­views a new le­gal path­way for get­ting them re­moved. They could sue the per­son who posted the con­tent and then get a court or­der de­mand­ing the In­ter­net com­pany re­move it.

But Has­sell dis­putes the rul­ing would do any­thing that dras­tic.

Her 2013 law­suit ac­cused a client she briefly rep­re­sented in a per­sonal in­jury case of de­fam­ing her on Yelp by falsely claim­ing that her firm failed to com­mu­ni­cate with the client, among other things.

San Fran­cisco Su­pe­rior Court Judge Don­ald Sul­li­van or­dered the client and Yelp to re­move the state­ments. Has­sell said the client failed to an­swer her law­suit or re­move the posts, so she had to seek a court or­der de­mand­ing that Yelp do it.

“We have an im­pec­ca­ble rep­u­ta­tion,” she said of her firm, Has­sell Law Group. “We have a right to pro­tect it.”

Yelp says the judge’s or­der vi­o­lates a 1996 fed­eral law that courts have widely in­ter­preted as pro­tect­ing In­ter­net com­pa­nies from li­a­bil­ity for posts by third-party users.

A fed­eral ap­peals court cited the law in a Mon­day rul­ing say­ing Yelp’s star rat­ing sys­tem did not make it re­spon­si­ble for a neg­a­tive re­view of a Wash­ing­ton state lock­smith busi­ness be­cause the over­all rat­ing is based on user re­views.

In Has­sell’s case, a three­judge ap­peals panel has said the or­der re­quir­ing Yelp to re­move the defam­a­tory state­ments did not vi­o­late the 1996 Com­mu­ni­ca­tions De­cency Act be­cause the com­pany was not fac­ing li­a­bil­ity. That’s be­cause Has­sell’s law­suit named her for­mer client and not Yelp, the ap­pel­late court said.

The re­view site says the law is broader and pre­vents the courts from treat­ing the com­pany as the speaker or pub­lisher of users’ posts re­gard­less of whether it’s named in a law­suit.

The rul­ing “would re­ally in­hibit a web­site’s abil­ity to pro­vide a bal­anced spec­trum of views on­line and make it more doubtful that peo­ple would get the in­for­ma­tion they need to make in­formed de­ci­sions,” said Aaron Schur, Yelp’s se­nior di­rec­tor of lit­i­ga­tion.

Yelp uses an al­go­rithm to weed out bi­ased and ma­li­cious re­views and en­cour­ages users to con­tact the com­pany if they re­ceive a fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tion from a court that a re­view is defam­a­tory.

In Has­sell’s case, Yelp has ques­tioned the court’s find­ing that the posts were defam­a­tory.

Has­sell said her law­suit will not af­fect neg­a­tive re­views on Yelp. She said she was the vic­tim of lies and spent a con­sid­er­able amount of ef­fort and money to get a court to rule that the for­mer client’s com­ments were defam­a­tory.

“You can give crit­i­cal re­views about peo­ple on the In­ter­net,” she said. “It doesn’t mean it’s go­ing to be defama­tion. You can’t write un­truth­ful con­tent to hurt some­body.”

Gold­man of the Santa Clara Uni­ver­sity School of Law didn’t think the courts treated Has­sell dif­fer­ently be­cause her busi­ness is a law firm, as op­posed to a restau­rant or other busi­ness in the ser­vice in­dus­try.

Daphne Keller, an In­ter­net law ex­pert at Stan­ford Law School and for­mer at­tor­ney at Google, said prior court de­ci­sions fa­vor Yelp and she would be sur­prised if the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court didn’t re­verse the rul­ing.

“It should be a no-brainer for Yelp to win,” she said.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Yelp CEO Jeremy Stop­pel­man poses at his com­pany’s head­quar­ters in San Fran­cisco. Yelp.com is warn­ing that a Cal­i­for­nia law­suit tar­get­ing a dis­grun­tled for­mer client’s crit­i­cal posts about a law firm could lead to the re­moval of neg­a­tive re­views and leave con­sumers with a skewed as­sess­ment of restau­rants and other busi­nesses.

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