Civil Liberties Group Steps Into Yelp.com Case

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed an amicus brief with the 9th Circuit, urging it to prevent an attempt by angry businesses to side-step federal law, holding Yelp.com and other online forums responsible for user reviews.
     U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward Chen dismissed a class action lawsuit in October 2011 that claimed Yelp.com, a social networking and user review site, rewarded clients that advertised with them with positive reviews, while punishing companies that did not with negative reviews.
     If such a claim where found to be true, the company would not be protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which immunizes companies from liability for reviews generated by third parties.
     But Chen found the class, which included Wheel Techniques, failed to support allegations that Yelp employees or people working on behalf of the company wrote business reviews or that Yelp paid users to write reviews.
     He also said Wheel Techniques couldn't prove Yelp helped create the negative content and therefore couldn't claim that it manipulated third-party reviews.
     Wheel Techniques and three other plaintiffs filed an appeal, holding on to the theory that the CDA does not apply to Yelp because they "authored reviews, removed positive reviews and effectively co-authored its aggregated 'star reviews' for businesses because it authored some of the reviews itself."
     The EFF says the appeal is based on nothing more than "speculation" and "conjecture," which does not provide a basis for stripping Yelp of its protections under the CDA. The organization claims the businesses are "disgruntled" and want to "chip away" at free speech and the protections provided by the CDA, and that doing so would amount to "bad policy."
     "If adopted, their approach would provided an avenue for other litigants to end-run the bright-line protections provided by the statute, jeopardizing service providers and undermining speech in the process," the EFF said in its brief.
     "The goal of Congress in enacting CDA 230 was clear: to ensure the Internet is a robust platform for users' free speech," said Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann, in a statement released Monday. "Users post millions of reviews on Yelp each year, but sites like this wouldn't exist without CDA 230's protections. We're asking the appeals court to make sure that sites like Yelp continue to thrive and remain vigorous forums for Internet users to share opinions and recommendations."