Aspen pet store files lawsuit seeking identity of anonymous online reviewers
March 7, 2018
The owner of an Aspen pet-supplies store has taken legal steps to sniff out the identity of an online poster who’s allegedly denigrated the business with disparaging comments.
A lawsuit filed Monday in Pitkin County District Court claims C.B. Paws, located in the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall, has been dogged by “false statements and negative reviews,” both on Google and Yelp, by a sole individual using multiple fake online profiles.
Filed by the Aspen law firm Garfield & Hecht, the suit seeks a permanent injunction to stop the defendant, referred to as “John Doe,” from posting the comments that “are for the purpose of injuring C.B. Paws’ reputation and goodwill” and driving away business.
But in order to enforce the permanent injunction, C.B. Paws owner Steve Fante said Tuesday, litigation is necessary to identify the reviewer, who has posted comments under such names as “alfredcomesaround.”
“That’s part of the issue,” Fante said. “The suit will start this.”
The process would involve subpoenaing both Google and Yelp to provide documents that would help identify the anonymous poster, Fante said.
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Google, Yelp and other platforms for online reviews, however, aren’t always accommodating to such requests and have fought in court to shield their anonymous users from exposure.
Yelp, a crowd-sourcing review site for businesses and restaurants, suffered a legal setback in November over a similar lawsuit where a tax-preparer sought to identify an anonymous user who allegedly defamed the accountant. An appellate court in California ruled Yelp couldn’t protect the user’s identity. The court, however, allowed Yelp to uphold the anonymous reviewer’s rights to free speech except when the statements are defamatory.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation supported Yelp in that case, arguing that online review platforms are “hospitable to important speech that may only be offered under the veil of anonymity. Simply put, many online platforms recognize that a key to maintaining the robust forum their users rely upon requires having their users’ backs.”
Google, according to its customer support page, notes, “Generally speaking, for us to produce any data, the request must be made in writing, signed by an authorized official of the requesting agency and issued under an appropriate law. If we believe a request is overly broad, we’ll seek to narrow it.”
C.B. Paws currently had nine reviews on Google as of Tuesday, the last three generating one star out of a possible five-star rating. The previous six include five five-star reviews and a single four-star assessment. The most recent negative comment, from three weeks ago, said in part: “I liken CB Paws to the finest buggy whip retailer with the internal combustion engine coming to market. Sorry, CB, my job is not to keep you in business and finance your lifestyle with your wildly overpriced products. As well, your employees should learn some manners 101. Sound familiar? Your competitors are a mere few walking steps away. Are the last two fluff reviews your relatives?”
Meanwhile, Fante, who has owned C.B. Paws for 12 of its 22 years in Aspen, said the anonymous comments “certainly haven’t helped” his business and he couldn’t determine how much, if any, business had been lost because of the reviews.
The suit, however, notes that “C.B. Paws’ goodwill with existing and potential customers has intrinsic value in and of itself and cannot be adequately compensated by monetary damages.”
Fante said he learned of the derogatory reviews through a Google alert late last year. Prior to the negative reviews, C.B. Paws “consistently received overwhelmingly positive reviews from customers on online review sites, including Google Reviews and Yelp,” contends the suit.
According to the C.B. Paws’ suit, the business began getting negative reviews in early November.
“While the reviews were purportedly posted by various individuals, many of the posts had similar themes, verbage and syntax,” says the suit, which noted the complaints were about the pet store’s return policy and prices, and included false statements about the shop’s “smells of dog urine, feces and drool.”
“The similarities between the purported negative reviews indicate that one individual, not multiple independent reviewers, posted the purported negative reviews,” says the suit.