As on-line marketing continues to evolve, consumers reviews continue to gain importance to almost any business, including law firms. However, anonymous negative consumer reviews can be harmful, and a growing number of law firms are vexed with inexplicable negative reviews of self-proclaimed clients that cannot be identified as ever having been a client of the firm.
The Virginia Court of Appeals, in a decision that is sure to grab attention throughout the country, ruled that Yelp must reveal the identities of seven negative reviewers whose experiences cannot be confirmed by the merchant as ever having been customers.
“The anonymous speaker has the right to express himself on the Internet without the fear that his veil of anonymity will be pierced for no other reason than because another person disagrees with him,” wrote the court. However, "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” and not subject to First Amendment protection, the court further explained.
Other courts have been tougher on merchants seeking to compel consumer Internet sites to reveal names of anonymous reviewers, so why is Virginia different? As explained in the court's opinion, Virginia has a statute on the process for unmasking the identify of people communicating anonymously over the Internet. Virginia Code § 8.01-407.1 sets that standard--not the court opinions of other states as curiously requested by Yelp counsel.
Law firms are not the only businesses impacted by anonymous negative consumer reviews by people claiming to be past clients, but I know a number of excellent lawyers who are struggling with these types of reviews. They have sought relief directly from the websites without relief, so must either engage in a time consuming battle to "push" the negative review down in importance or engage a costly on-line reputation repair company to to the work for them.
My congratulations to carpet cleaner, Joe Hadeed, and his counsel for pursuing this for all of us.