Free-speech advocates are irate about the Virginia appeals court ruling that requires Yelp to reveal the identities of those who post anonymous reviews on its website.
But restaurant operators—whose very livelihoods are threatened when unknown commenters unfairly trash their reputation online—may be hoping the ruling goes nationwide, the sooner the better.
Yelp is praying it doesn’t. In a post on its corporate blog written by Aaron Schur, the company’s senior director of litigation—some may find it interesting that Yelp has such a position—frames the dispute as a First Amendment issue.
”This case highlights the need for stronger online free speech protection across the country, and is a reminder of why Yelp is fighting to expand the protections of consumer free speech and privacy in courts and legislative bodies across the country,” Schur writes. Yelp, a publicly traded company with a market capitalization of more than $5 billion, paints itself as taking the side of the little guy in this dispute, even though it’s little-guy businesses like restaurants that bear the brunt of the damage.
But the anonymous haters on Yelp aren’t the only ones whose identities will soon become more evident to restaurant operators. Traditional print critics are ready to stop keeping their identities, in particular their appearances, secret. Instead of relying on old-school ruses like temporary disguises or fake names and newer ones like keeping their pictures off of the Internet, some high-profile critics have decided to let it all hang out.
A recent New York magazine cover offers a headshot of the magazine’s noted restaurant critic, Adam Platt. Platt had previously avoided being photographed, hoping that no restaurant operator would be able to recognize him when he came to dine. But he recognizes the silliness of that practice in the contemporary era.
“Over the years, this myth of anonymity has served many useful purposes. It’s worked, in practice, for the mysterious Michelin inspectors, who return to dining establishments year after year to take away or bestow their stars,” Platt writes. “It can work, also, for local critics whose publications attempt to cultivate a similar illusion of omniscience, although it’s been my experience that the handful of grand restaurants that actually have stars to lose will make it their business to spot you. Mostly, though, anonymity has been a powerful marketing tool. It’s lent a sense of impartiality and Oz-like mystery to the dark art of restaurant criticism, and if members of the clubby fine-dining world didn’t always believe it, then at least the public sometimes did.”
Now the restaurant news cycle moves much too fast for this to matter.
“In the old days, critics would wait months to anoint the latest hot restaurant, and now the food blogs will have that news for you in 24 seconds,” he notes. “In this crowdsourced age, no one’s really anonymous anymore (although if you’ve tried Googling ‘Adam Platt images’ before today, you know that it’s possible to do a pretty good job), and thanks to Instagram and Yelp, anyone can be a member of the critic’s formerly exclusive dining club.”
Platt says he will still give phony names when making a reservation, so he’s not baring it all. But operators can take solace that they may soon be able to know a lot more about the people who review their restaurants than they ever have before.