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    Virginia Supreme Court rules judge lacked authority over Yelp information

    RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- A Virginia judge lacked authority to order the website Yelp to reveal the names of people who posted negative comments about a carpet cleaning business, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

    The decision in the closely watched Internet free-speech case did not get to the central issue of whether Yelp users have First Amendment right to remain anonymous. Instead, the justices ruled that Virginia courts lack jurisdiction over subpoenas for information stored in California, where Yelp is based.

    Alexandria-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc. filed a defamation lawsuit in 2012 claiming its reputation was stained by seven people who said in Yelp reviews that they were overcharged. Hadeed suspects the critics are not actual customers but was unable to determine that for certain based on the limited information it could glean from the Internet postings to compare with its customer database.

    Hadeed obtained a subpoena for identifying information, but Yelp refused to comply, citing its users' First Amendment rights. The judge held Yelp in contempt, and the appeal followed.

    The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other media organizations supported Yelp's position in a friend-of-the-court brief.

    The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the Alexandria Circuit Court judge's ruling last year, saying the reviewers' free-speech rights "must be balanced against Hadeed's right to protect its reputation." The court concluded that Hadeed met all of its obligations under a six-step process in state law for obtaining the identifying information.

    The Supreme Court, however, disposed of the matter solely on the jurisdictional issue.

    "The information sought by Hadeed is stored by Yelp in the usual course of its business on administrative databases within the custody or control of only specified Yelp employees located in San Francisco, and thus, beyond the reach of the circuit court," the justices said.

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