A feud-turned-legal-battle between a carpet cleaning company and one business review site have gotten some of the internet’s biggest players — Google, Facebook, and Twitter — up in arms over the nature of anonymity on the internet and the role that the First Amendment plays in it.
According to NBC, an Alexandria, VA carpet cleaning business, Hadeed’s Carpet Cleaning Inc., filed a lawsuit against business review site Yelp in 2012. The owner of Hadeed’s Carpet Cleaning Inc., Joseph Hadeed, claimed that his business suffered after a number of negative reviews on Yelp, at least seven of which, he claims, are fraudulent.
The people who posted the reviews in question claim to have been overcharged for services, but Hadeed suspects that the reviewers are not real customers at all, and postulates that it is the work of his competitors. In response to the reviews, Hadeed demanded that Yelp reveal the identities of the people who wrote them.
First, a Virginia judge held Yelp in contempt for not providing information that would identify the reviewers, as the subpoena required, but Yelp countered with an appeal, citing the First Amendment and arguing that revealing the information would violate it.
The case has gone to the Supreme Court, and justices are expected to come to a ruling in January.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the three internet giants claim that the decision could have drastic consequences for free speech on the internet.
“The right to speak anonymously would be greatly diminished if those who objected to anonymous speech could readily employ civil discovery to unmask a speaker,” the companies said in a court brief in support of Yelp. According to The Wall Street Journal, Yelp’s attorney Paul Alan Levy said in court that, “there has to be evidence of wrongdoing before you impose on the constitutional right to speak anonymously.”
Hadeed’s is just one of over 40,000 carpet cleaning businesses in the United States. Finding a reputable one is necessary for a healthy home — since dist, dust, mold, and even viruses can live in carpets — but the decision could have an effect on the way that people find and evaluate businesses and services online. If people can no longer review businesses anonymously, they may be less likely to leave a negative review.