Is there a right to be “anonymous” when posting customer reviews? The U.S. Constitution supports “anonymous pamphleteering,” but defamatory speech falls outside of First Amendment protections. So, what is a negative online customer review? Pamphleteering or defamation?
In Yelp! Inc. v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, Inc., Hadeed, an owner of a cleaning service believed that negative reviews were authored by a non-customer, so he invoked Virginia’s “unmasking statute” that addresses anonymous communications that may be “tortious or illegal.” Va. Code § 8.01-407.1. He needed to find out who authored the scathing articles on Yelp! So, he subpoenaed Yelp! to produce documents in order to obtain the full name, gender, birthdate, IP address or email address of the authors of the reviews in question.