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Be Careful What You Yelp - It Could Be Grounds for a Lawsuit

by Jane Susskind, published

As Yelp's biggest fan, I have always defended the platform because I truly believe that giving consumers a space to share their experiences makes businesses more accountable. Yelp allows reviewers to rate businesses on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, requiring that users explain their personal experiences in a short review.

Yelp has become so widespread that people now use the term "Yelp" as a verb.

"The service was phenomenal, I can't wait to Yelp about it," is a phrase my friends have now become accustomed to hearing.  

But what happens if a Yelp review is fake?

Reviews are verified through a number of avenues, one of which is Yelp's review filter. Through their algorithm, Yelp identifies and rejects reviews that are likely from spammers, SEO companies, or fake.

"This means about 25% of the reviews *submitted* to Yelp are not published on a business’s listing or recommended to consumers," Yelp touts on their official blog.

While this provides protection against the spread of fake reviews, what happens if a Yelp review is inaccurate?

Yelp's failure to distinguish between the lawful expression of opinion and unlawful defamation has resulted in a growing number of legal cases. The most recent was filed by a D.C. contractor against a woman whose one-star review reportedly cost the business $750,000 in damages.

I am a firm believer that our First Amendment rights should be fully recognized in the digital age and should be equally applicable to online speech. I have contributed to Yelp for three years, using the service as a means to express my opinion about business I visit and services I receive.

However, our most fundamental rights do not come without limitations. Our Second Amendment right to bear arms, for instance, would not be compatible with the ideals of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness put forth by our Founding Fathers if they were not limited to protect our safety.

Similarly, our right to freedom of speech does not give us unyielded power to advance falsities at the expense of another individual.

Let me be clear: I do not know whether or not the claims made in this specific case are an instance of defamation. These details will likely come out as the case goes to trial.

What I do know, however, is that with over 117 million users and over 47 million user reviews, Yelp's impact on businesses will continue to grow. We must find a way to balance one's fundamental right to free speech while protecting against negligence and defamation.

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