Court prevents Yelp from turning over user data

Virginia’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that review website Yelp did not have to hand over private information about its users to a company that claimed people were lying in their reviews, in a closely watched case about anonymity on the Internet. 

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning in Alexandria, Va., had tried to obtain a subpoena to force Yelp to turn over information about people leaving negative reviews on Yelp, to see whether they were actual customers of the company.

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The court only ruled on procedural grounds, telling the business that it needed to file suit in California — where Yelp’s databases are located — not Virginia. It did not issue a decision on the meat of the argument, which is whether or not a company is able to force a website to turn over records about its anonymous users.

Still, Yelp and Public Citizen — which represented the website — framed the decision as a victory.

“If Hadeed turns to California courts to learn the identities of its critics, those courts will require it to show evidence to meet the well-accepted First Amendment test for identifying anonymous speakers,” Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy said in a statement. “And so far, Hadeed has not come close to providing such evidence.”

The case had attracted tech companies including Google and Twitter, as well as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others.

At issue was, they said, the right to remain anonymous on the Internet.

“Fortunately, the right to speak under a pseudonym is constitutionally protected and has long been recognized for the important information it allows individuals to contribute to public discourse,” Yelp senior director of litigation Aaron Schur wrote in a blog post

“Businesses that want to bully and intimidate customers who express displeasure with less than stellar consumer experiences should not be able to obtain their personal information without providing sufficient evidence that they have been wronged, which Hadeed failed to do in this case.”