YELP is an online service that was founded in 2004 to help people find local businesses. People can establish a YELP account for free. Similarly, businesses can setup an account for free, post photos and send messages of special offers to their customers. YELP makes money by selling ads to local businesses, such as dentists, pet sitters and moving companies. A feature of YELP is the ability of a customer to post a review of a business after he or she has used the services or products of the business. Each review reflects a customer’s personal experience and “tells it like it was”. This means that some of the reviews are beneficial to the reputation of a business, as they are “glowing” reviews that describe a positive experience. This also means that some reviews are harmful to the reputation of a business, as they are “critical” reviews that describe a negative experience. YELP does not permit paying advertisers to change or re-order the reviews they receive. YELP recently advised that some customers have received legal threats from businesses after posting critical reviews. In some cases legal proceedings have actually been commenced. One example given was a dentist, who on five different occasions has initiated legal actions against customers (former patients) who posted critical reviews. Another example given was that of a professional pet sitting company who sued a customer after a critical review suggested that the pet sitter had killed their fish. Another example given was that of a moving company who sued a customer after a critical review awarded them just one star. The objective of such legal actions is to get the critical reviews taken down. YELP has expressed concern that the threat of legal action will silence customers who would otherwise post critical reviews. In order to combat this activity, YELP has tagged certain business accounts with a “Consumer Alert” which is reproduced below:
Consumer Alert: Questionable Legal Threats
This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers. As a reminder, reviewers who share their experiences have a First Amendment right to express their opinions on YELP.
Freedom of speech is enshrined in United States law as part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In Canada, our equivalent is “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms”, which lists “fundamental freedoms, including “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”. Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian judges have given more weight to the value of personal reputation than to free speech. I recommend that Canadian customers posting critical YELP reviews stick to the facts. Any embellishment that goes beyond the facts may give the business or an individual from the business an opening to sue under the laws of libel.