The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation is urging a federal appeals court to block an attempt by "disgruntled businesses" to hold online forums, including Yelp, responsible for customer's reviews.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Friday, the EFF argues that the court should uphold existing laws that foster free speech online, and protect online service providers from liability for what users say about businesses. In other words, the Santa Rita Jail can't sue Yelp when inmates give the holding cells there only one star.
Several businesses filed suit against Yelp, claiming that the widely used review site manipulated and manufactured customer reviews to force businesses to advertise on the website. A lower court sided with Yelp's request to dismiss the case. And now the EFF is arguing that lowering the standards for online forums like Yelp would "chill online speech."
"If online service providers like Yelp could be held liable for material posted by any one of their millions of users merely upon thin claims of 'manipulation,' providers would feel pressured to censor or eliminate forums altogether," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "The result is fewer places for people to participate online and a loss all of us who rely on user reviews and other user-generated material."
The EFF pointed out that Congress enacted the Communications Decency Act to protect online forums from lawsuits like these -- and the intention of the law was clear: to ensure the Internet is "a robust platform for users' free speech," said Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann.
"Users post millions of reviews on Yelp each year, but sites like this wouldn't exist without CDA 230's protections," Hofmann said. "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."