Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wong v. Jing (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 9, 2010)

Here's a SLAPP suit involving Yelp.

It's a familiar refrain.  Commenter posts a negative review on a web site (here,, the relevant business sues the commenter and the web site for defamation and related torts, and -- at least here in California -- the commenter and the site file an anti-SLAPP motion.

Everyone agrees in this one that the first stage of the anti-SLAPP inquiry is satisfied, and it's pretty clear that the comments at issue here (which were about a dental practice and that in part involved a complaint about mercury in fillings) are matters of public interest.  So the only real question is whether the plaintiff has established a prima facie case of liability.  And here, it has -- at least for defamation, albeit not for the other (tangential) torts such as negligent infliction of emotional distress.

So even though the actual resolution of the case is somewhat fact-specific, I mention it for two reasons.  First, it's another example of SLAPP motions and online critiques.  Important stuff.

Second, there was also a line in the opinion that struck me as somewhat interesting, particularly because I've started to use Yelp a little bit myself over the past couple of years.  A line of page five of the opinion that reads:  "Wong said that she asked Yelp to delete the review because it was libelous.  Yelp advised her to buy a business account so she could manage the content of her listing."

Which made me think:  "Really?!  That's how Yelp makes its money?  By shaking down businesses and by distorting its reviews depending on who's paying them?  If so, I have no intention of using the thing, since it manifestly reduces the site's credibility."

Which bothered me enough to go ahead and research whether that was, in fact, the case.  The true answer to which, I learned, is far from clear.  There's apparently a huge controversy -- previously unknown to me -- on this precise topic.  Here, for example, is but a small piece of that dispute.  But there's so, so much more there:  I probably skimmed fifty or so different intelligent pieces on the subject (and many other not-so-intelligent pieces).

Ultimately, my tentative view -- for what it's worth -- is this.  I think it's probably true that Yelp does, in fact, try to sign up businesses by telling them that if they sign up, their reviews will be better.  But whether that's an accurate statement or not -- well, I simply have no idea, since we can't tell without looking at the algorithms  used to rate the businesses and to place (or delete) comments, which Yelp clearly has absolutely no intention of revealing.

So in the end, I'm not sure whether Yelp's business side is simply ripping off businesses -- but has a credible product for consumers -- or, alternately, is extorting businesses in a manner that leaves its site unworthy of reference.

Regardless, the dispute is pretty unseemly.  And, I concede, makes me at least slightly more hesitant to rely on Yelp reviews.  Which otherwise seem an incredibly useful piece of consumer data.

So that's my nonlegal take on this legal case.