by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

Reviews are always a hot topic for authors and readers, but this new legal development could fundamentally change online reviews.

A business owner has sued for the right to see the names of anonymous online reviewers. The owner believes a rash of suddenly negative reviews came from competitors, because he can’t match their complaints and timing to his service records. The reviews hurt his business, and he sued them for defamation, demanding that Yelp turn over their identities. Yelp has refused, claiming first amendment protection. The Virginia state supreme court will decide the case this month.

I’m rooting for the business owner. A good friend lost half her business after one bad posting on Ripoff Report, in which the reviewer used a phony name and made false claims—after she gave him his money back.  As an author, I’m never going to sue any reviewers, but wouldn’t it be nice if they couldn’t hide behind fake internet names?

I expect readers to disagree, and I understand why anonymity seems important. Because I know so many writers personally, I don’t feel comfortable reviewing most books. But I also never use a made-up persona either. For anything. I stand by my words.

Consumer reviews have become very powerful in influencing buying decisions, subverting the power that marketers once had. Overall, I believe this is a good thing for all of us.

Yet, both authors and readers have abused the ability to post anonymous reviews. Some authors have used it to promote their own work and to trash their competitors. Readers have used it to complain about a book’s price with one-star reviews, and some just spew negativity and hatred wherever they go.

For me, the issue is opinion versus false claims. When someone reads a book and honestly hates it, they have a right to say so. But so many reviews, particularly of products and services, go beyond opinion and make false claims. Don’t those authors or small businesses have a right to counter those claims? Doesn’t the reviewer have an obligation to support those claims—if challenged?

I’m hoping the court decides that Yelp needs to turn over the reviewers’ identity. If it does, a precedent will be set, and more and more businesses will demand that negative/false reviewers produce documentation. That should lead to more and more transparency in online reviews—as the trolls realize they could be identified and held accountable.

What do you think? Does the first amendment guarantee our right to anonymous free speech or just free speech?

  1. As professionals, we’re all used to gritting our teeth and bearing it when we get a less than lovely review.

    We might not like them, but we accept them as one reader’s valid viewpoint.

    But it’s the reviewers who clearly have more interest in spitting venom than evaluating the book who stick in my craw.

    In any other sphere of life we can call them out, but as authors we’re supposed to just accept this damaging spite. But why should we? We all have a living to earn and while these ‘reviewers’ can damage our rankings and our livelihoods I think we’re entitled to defend ourselves, through the courts if necessary.

    I applaud this businessman for standing up for himself and his firm and hope he wins the right to learn their identity. People who hide behind anonymity to damage others shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

    And although I’m not American and know little about American law, nasty types such as the person/persons damaging this businessman’s ability to earn a living, need to be brought to book.

    Surely the whole ethos of the ‘American Dream’ and the reason so many fled the shores of Europe, was to escape persecution. What is this poor man enduring but persecution? If the Fifth Amendment doesn’t cover that, it should. Or perhaps it needs an additional clause.

  2. I’ll be Anonymous on this occasion since I am getting into topics I only plan to mention in my memoir (should I ever write one) and am going beyond anonymity in just reviews.

    In terms of book reviews, I rather think that when complaints are made by authors they should be looked at seriously and not ignored. Some should be taken down. The author should be allowed rebuttal if they are not taken down.

    MOST interesting that it is Yelp that caused the case that you are blogging about. It was necessary to deal with them that way legally I am sure as they do not care (is my impression) from the time I wrote them and advised that they were being used that way when a favorite restaurant was being wrongly trashed. I believe that a competitor had done that to one of the few of my favorite restaurants that has actually reliable & good service & in the many, many years I have gone there has never had any bad service, certainly not of the type that was claimed, something totally unique in my town.

    I felt that anonymity in newspaper comments (while many were awful and idiotic) did help provide me insight in some cases about things the police in the town in question refused to report (and they even admit they don’t use FBI stats to calculate). I don’t think it is wise for those who live in any town to take on that town’s law enforcement even if most of them are fine peiople. (In the Bambi case, I think that she got framed for her husband’s ex-wife’s murder just because she was a whistleblower & if she had only moved out of the city she was being a federal witness against she’d be living her life and we’d have never read of her and their federal case might have improved Milwaukee before Dahmer ever came along and they might have caught him sooner and his victims would still be alive, but I digress….)

    But on the other hand in New Orleans the fascinating posts to the newspaper by one sometimes amusing or intriguing wag named HenryLouisMencken51 turned out to be a prosecutor going after the accused guy in one of his BIG corruption cases. Horrifying. He is doing time for that now, has lost his retirement, etc. I believe and has jeopardized many, many cases so the legal system worked for finding out who was misusing anonymity.)

    I definitely think that perhaps names have to be made legally available if subpoenaed so that one has legal redress for dealing with the likes of Yelp and others who simply won’t take responsibility for investigating complaints. But there does need to be a balance or there are things we the public need to know that we will never learn.

    Those who have the most interesting things to say in certain fields cannot ever share even hints to the public until at least retirement (or in memoirs after death) if they don’t have a bit of anonymity. Of course, if we had smarter and more professional judges who actually did their jobs more carefully and competently then these careful lines could be drawn more properly.

    One is never as anonymous as one thinks — except the bad guys sometimes are since they know how to be and even the legal system does not always find them though over time they should if they seriously kept searching. (The tale of how they tracked one hacker was fascinating, can’t remember the citations.) Our laws need to take all these issues more seriously and we need politicians who care about writing careful laws instead of too many of them being bought. Anyway, one learns things in some jobs that one would like to hint of to the public (and even has a responsibility to do so) and yet one simply cannot if one wants to eat and live. This is the dilemma.

    There was a major legal case lost in my area that I would have liked to have contributed just a few hints to the plaintiffs’ lawyers about what they should look for, but I simply could not as I had to have a job to have health insurance and to live.

    I agree with Geraldine Evans that writers should consider the courts when reviewers have vicious agendas. I think that whoever is legally wronged actually has a responsibility to consider whether they might be helping others in taking a case to court.

    I choose to be somewhat anonymous here because I want people to read my ideas and see my points, rambling though they are, not to see who I am. And if I ever have to work for others again I don’t want to sound like I am not the perfect little serf. I was the perfect little serf. But when one wants a job in the U.S. these days one has to be sure they think so — in my neck of the woods anyway.

  3. I find it cowardly that reviewers would choose to hide behind false identities in order to demean or damage a writer. Personally, I tend to only review books that I enjoyed, although on rare occasions, I have reviewed a few books with only one or two stars. I am a voracious reader and also a published poet (although I am a clinical social worker by profession), and I respect those who publish novels and spend enormous amounts of time creating entertainment for those of us who love to read.

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