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MoveOn-Yelp liberal flap really about free speech

Earlier this year FWD.us, a Facebook-led advocacy group pursuing immigration reform, raised the ire of liberals with the tactics it used to pursue its goal. Now it’s the review site Yelp’s turn.

Led by MoveOn.org, liberals are waging a campaign to shame a company for pursuing a liberal cause, while alternately ignoring the issue at hand or explicitly saying they agree with it.

MoveOn recently launched a petition to pressure Yelp to drop its membership from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that writes model legislation for states on a range of issues, most notoriously Stand Your Ground-style self-defense laws and legislation raising barriers for people trying to register to vote.

The petition has gathered about 15,000 signatures, and Friday a rally was held in front of Yelp’s headquarters in San Francisco. To hear it from MoveOn, Yelp has suddenly decided to dive into a right-wing political agenda:

“Yelp, the popular San Francisco-based site for restaurant and other reviews, has recently crawled into bed with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which develops and promotes model legislation all over America – legislation that is detrimental to the lives of consumers, voters, workers, and their families; in other words, to us, Yelp’s customers.”

The real point

What MoveOn doesn’t mention is that the actual issue concerning Yelp is the sort of lawsuit in which businesses sue people who have posted negative comments about them online as a way to bully critics into silence. What are called SLAPP lawsuits aren’t very common, but Yelp has a lot riding on people writing such reviews, so it wants to encourage laws that might minimize such lawsuits.

This is basically a free-speech issue. Just over half the states have passed anti-SLAPP legislation, the company says, with California and Texas being most aggressive. Yelp would like every state to have such laws, and the company is also pursuing federal legislation.

Since ALEC is a business-friendly organization that writes model legislation for states, Yelp says the two are logical allies. Yelp is part of a task force that is pursuing noncontroversial topics such as broadband adoption and the promotion of the tech sector.

“Along with virtually every major consumer Internet company in Silicon Valley, we advocate for and promote issues with organizations on both sides of the aisle,” said Luther Lowe, Yelp’s head of public policy.

Facebook and Google are also said to be working with the task force, but ALEC declined to confirm this. Facebook said ALEC’s technology policy work focused on issues it found important but did not directly say it was involved.

It’s about credibility

But Yelp set itself up as a target when it posted a link to a presentation it gave to ALEC. Diane Russell, a member of Maine’s state Legislature who is part of the campaign, says the credibility Yelp lends ALEC by associating with it outweighs any benefit to be had from working with ALEC to support anti-SLAPP legislation – which she supports, too.

“I can’t take on ALEC,” she says. “But I can have a rational conversation with Yelp and ask them to reconsider what they’re doing.”

The tactics Yelp’s critics have chosen to pursue this campaign have added another wrinkle. Besides the petition, MoveOn and others have encouraged people to post negative reviews to ALEC’s Yelp page.

Many of these reviews were caught in Yelp’s filtering algorithm, seemingly adding another layer to the conspiracy. The complaint that Yelp uses its power to bury reviews in nefarious ways is not a new one; the company is facing a lawsuit from business owners who complain that positive reviews dropped off their pages after they declined to advertise.

In this case, though, the algorithm is doing exactly what it is intended to do: stop coordinated efforts to manipulate ratings.

As it happens, the campaign has probably done more to promote ALEC’s role as something more than a right-wing bogeyman than anything Yelp could have done.

Joshua Brustein is a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter. E-mail: jbrustein@bloomberg.net

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Mystic Maggie

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