Chefs, restaurants, the Federal Trade Commission, South Park, and its own shareholders have all taken shots at Yelp and its army of self-appointed restaurant critics. But that army just got some serious reinforcements.
Business owners have been going to court to battle the customers who put a dent in their livelihood with one-star ratings and sassy reviews, and now Yelp is fighting back by flagging businesses that get litigious with their reviewers.
For example, last year, a Texas couple whose fish was overfed by Prestigious Pets gave the pet sitting service a one-star review. They found out about the overfeeding because thanks to a camera mounted on their fishbowl and claimed that the one star was for "potentially harming my fish, otherwise it would have been 2 stars." Prestigious Pets ended up suing the couple for $6,766, alleging that they had violated a "non-disparagement" clause in their contract.
In order to avoid further cases like this, or at least minimise the chance of them happening, Yelp has begun flagging businesses that "threaten consumers who exercise their free speech rights."
Positioning themselves as champions of free speech, Yelp says the new system will allow consumers to further protect themselves from big bad businesses. "Consumers don't necessarily know that these threats are sometimes empty or meritless (and often both!), so the threat of legal action is enough to scare them into silence. We don't think that's right," Yelp wrote on their blog.
One need look no further than Prestigious Pets' Yelp page to see just how aggressive these new "Consumer Alert" notices are, after a business has made what they deem a "questionable legal threat."
And while this could seem like a double whammy for restaurants and petsitting services who already have to deal with sometimes unreasonable Yelp reviewers, the makers of the app say this is about way more than restaurant reviews, referring to two federal bills and the Constitution as moral high ground.
Those bills are the Consumer Review Fairness Act, prohibiting inclusion of gag clauses in contracts, and the SPEAK FREE Act geared at protecting consumers from lawsuits. "Both are important and will work together to protect your First Amendment right to express your opinions online," Yelp says.
Which is a little strange considering that the First Amendment is aimed squarely at Congress and legislation; not businesses prohibiting free speech. Yelp gets one star for their legal interpretation.