The BBC reports that a US court has ruled that Yelp must disclose the identities of those posting negative reviews.
Why is this important?
Because it's the first time a US court has ruled against a review site. In previous cases (and there have been many) courts have consistently ruled in favour of the sites, basing their decisions on the defense of the First Amendment rights of the individual. Here's the critical passage:
"In a statement, the judge said: "Generally, a Yelp review is
entitled to First Amendment protection because it is a person's opinion
about a business that they patronised."
He added that users had the right to express themselves
anonymously without fear of being identified just because another person
disagreed with them.
However, the statement went on to say: "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."
In these circumstances the reviewer would not be entitled to anonymity, he said."
We don't think Yelp's case will have been helped by their own admission, back in September 2013, that "a quarter of their reviews are fake."
This ruling has significant implications for any 'open' site (a site where any reviewer can post any review of any business without having to prove they actually used the business). This type of site includes TripAdvisor and many other big review sites.
Unverified (anonymous) reviews can do untold harm to businesses (especially small and medium sized businesses). Whereas a malicious review of a Hilton hotel, for instance, has the power to be a pain (both financially and emotionally) it will not close the hotel, but such a review of an independent can and has. We met an estate agent last month whose business has suffered financially for the last four years from one malicious review (by an ex-member of staff) on Google.
Verified reviews have to be the way ahead.