Risk & Compliance

Court Tosses Suit Over One-Star Rating on Yelp

A federal panel says Yelp's signature rating system does not make it the "author" of the one star that a business received from a customer.
Matthew HellerSeptember 14, 2016

In a victory for internet service providers, a federal appeals court has ruled that Yelp’s signature star-rating system does not make it liable for a negative review posted by a user.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) broadly protects ISPs from liability for content “created” by third parties. In the case decided Monday by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a Washington state locksmith argued he could sue Yelp for libel because it was the “author” of the one-star rating his business received from a customer identified only as Sarah K.

The court agreed with Yelp that Douglas Kimzey had no way around the CDA, declining to “open the door to such artful skirting of the CDA’s safe harbor provision.”

“We fail to see how Yelp’s rating system, which is based on rating inputs from third parties and which reduces this information into a single, aggregate metric, is anything other than user-generated data,” Judge Margaret M. McKeown wrote for the court.

She also said the rating system “does ‘absolutely nothing to enhance the defamatory sting of the message’ beyond the words offered by the user.”

Sarah K. gave Kimzey’s Redmond Mobile Locksmith company one star because, she said, the locksmith showed up well after his promised time and then charged her $210 when she had been quoted $50. “Call this business at your own risk,” she advised.

Instead of going after Sarah K., Kimzey sued Yelp under the theory that the website designed and created its star-rating system, making it the author of Sarah K.’s one-star rating.

A lower court judge dismissed the case, finding the CDA “immunizes [Yelp] from the entirety of [Kimzey]’s lawsuit.”

“The appeals court “rightly confirmed Yelp’s ability to provide a forum for millions of consumers to share their experiences with local businesses,” Aaron Schur, Yelp’s senior director of litigation, told the Los Angeles Times.

A California appeals court recently ruled that Yelp must remove reviews that were found to be defamatory, even though it was not a defendant in the underlying libel case. It has appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.