Yelp Review Filter Wins Legal Challenge
By Eric Goldman–Forbes
An automated Yelp review filter suppresses some user reviews of businesses. The review filter’s criteria aren’t publicly disclosed, and some businesses feel that legitimate positive reviews from happy customers are unfairly hidden. One business owner, an operator of three restaurants in Mammoth Lakes, California and a Yelp advertiser, got so frustrated with the review filter that he challenged Yelp’s review filter in court. Recently, the court ruled decisively in favor of Yelp, confirming that Yelp isn’t legally liable for filtering users’ reviews as it sees fit.
The restaurant owner didn’t attack the review filter directly. Instead, he complained about Yelp’s marketing descriptions of its review filter, claiming that Yelp falsely advertises its trustworthiness when it uses characterizations such as “remarkable filtering process” and “most trustworthy.” Yelp responded that the lawsuit was a “SLAPP”–a lawsuit designed to suppress socially beneficial speech–and therefore should be dismissed per California’s anti-SLAPP law.
The court agreed with Yelp, finding that “statements regarding the filtering of reviews on a social media site such as yelp.com are matters of public interest.” The court also concluded that laudatory statements about the Yelp review filter were “puffery,” not factual representations. Cf. Seaton v. TripAdvisor. As a result, if the anti-SLAPP dismissal survives a likely appeal, the restaurant owner will have to pay Yelp’s legal defense costs.
This ruling complements a similar case, Levitt v. Yelp, which also led to a decisive Yelp win. In Levitt, the plaintiffs alleged (among other things) that Yelp should be liable for reordering users’ reviews. In 2011, the court dismissed the complaint based on 47 USC 230, the federal law that says websites aren’t liable for third party content. As I wrote then, the Levitt “ruling makes clear that Yelp can manage its database of user reviews however it wants.” The newest ruling supports that conclusion.
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