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Could a Bad Yelp Review Be a Crime?

Arizona lawmakers are debating a new law that could make a bad Yelp or Google Review a crime. Keep reading to learn more.

What Is Yelp?

For those unfamiliar, Yelp is a review site and app where consumers can leave an honest review of a restaurant, attraction, shop, or local business. Owned by Google, Yelp reviews appear every time users search for a location and offer a composite score and a few of the top viewed reviews. The user can click on the score or a review and be taken to the Yelp website for a more in-depth summary.

The beauty of Yelp and Google reviews is that the reviews are written by users for users. In the same way that your friend may tell you about an awful experience at a hotel, reviewers have a measure of trust with users that corporations do not have. You would trust your friend’s bad (or good) review over the company’s public relations machine.

These reviews have a lot of power to persuade people to or away from a business. In some cases, reviewers may leave a nasty one-star review because of a small error or miscommunication. At some point, emotionally charged reviews can damage a business’s reputation to the point that it shut down.

This extreme review pattern is what Arizona lawmakers want to target with SB 1001.

SB 1001

Introduced by Senator Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, Senate Bill 1001 would add social media messages to the state’s existing extortion laws. Eric Emmert, an East Valley Chamber of Commerce board member, says that customers are using the power of a negative review to extort restaurants and businesses out of products. For example, someone eating at a local restaurant may ask for free dessert in exchange for a positive Yelp review.

Other leaders like cake shop owner and board member for the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, Jan Newton, have skin in the review game. Newton says that the reviews of her cake shop are a top priority and a point of concern for her and her employees. She says that one negative review could affect business for a while – long after the reviewer has clicked post.

If a Review Is a Crime, What Crime Would It Be?

Emmert says that by definition, bad reviews or the threat of one is extortion. Customers threatening a poor review in exchange for discounts and free desserts follows the extortion formula:

power + threats = product.

If the law passes, a bad review could be considered a Class II Felony with a minimum sentence of three years in prison. For business owners like Newton, reviews are impactful, but may not warrant such extreme measures. She testified before the assembly that while positive and negative reviews often affect business, she has not seen a loss in revenue from angry customers asking for a refund or free cake to avoid a scathing one-star review. She also has not pursued legal action against reviewers and does not see much merit in doing so at this time.

Some legislators wholeheartedly disagree with Sen. Leach’s proposal. Representative Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe is concerned that SB 1001 would penalize honest reviewers along with bad actors. Not every negative review is posted for the sake of free product. In fact, some businesses do provide poor service or shoddy products to customers.

Leaving an honest review may not sit well with business owners, but Rep. Hernandez is concerned that criminalizing reviews could empower business to retaliate and press charges for honest opinions posted in good faith.

The consensus of most lawmakers is that this bill is murky. It is unclear how the law would protect reviewers and their right to free speech while eliminating the power dynamic between extortionists and business owners. Others feel like the existing laws on the books serve their purpose without the need for expansion. If business owners choose to file a report, they can do so with the laws now.

SB 1001 is moving through the legislature, and it is unclear where it will land. Territorial Law, LLC will continue to follow this story as it develops.