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Reviewers Compare Yelp to a 'Slave Ship' in Ridiculous Class-Action Lawsuit

Reviewers Compare Yelp to a 'Slave Ship' in Ridiculous Class-Action Lawsuit
Image credit: Michael Dorausch

Here's something to yelp about.

Some Yelp reviewers have filed a class-action lawsuit demanding monetary compensation for the reviews they post on the site. The plaintiffs argue they are technically unpaid employees who deserve payment for their contributions, given the importance of the reviews to Yelp's business model.

According to the suit, Yelp’s failure to pay reviewers – who voluntarily choose to evaluate their experiences at everything from restaurants to law firms – “have become suspect in both the public forum, as witnessed by the proliferation and popularity of such websites as yelp-sucks.com, and within the courtrooms.”

The suit goes on to compare Yelp's business practices to those on a slave ship. “Business journal commentators have compared said business practices to a 21st Century galley slave ship with pirates banging the drum to keep up the fast pace and to fill the pockets of their stockholders with treasure,” it states.

The plaintiffs argue that instead of offering payment, Yelp draws in reviewers through “cult-like rewards,” such as "trinkets, badges, titles, praise, social promotion, free liquor, free food, and free promotional Yelp attire, such as red panties with ‘Make Me Yelp!’ stamped across its bottom.” One Yelper is quoted as stating, “It’s kind of like a cult, except instead of Kool-Aid we drink alcohol.”

Related: Yelp: We Won't Stand for Businesses That Pay for Fake Reviews

The plaintiffs, who include some of Yelp's "elite" writers, also claim they had to write positive reviews of venues that sponsored company events, where they were often offered free food and liquor, or they risked losing their elite status.

Yelp refuted the lawsuit and said it will seek to have it dismissed. "This is a textbook example of a frivolous lawsuit; it is unfortunate the court has to waste its time adjudicating it and we will seek to have it dismissed. The argument that voluntarily using a free service equates to an employment relationship is completely without merit, unsupported by law and contradicted by the dozens of websites like Yelp that consumers use to help one another," a company spokesperson said.

Yelp has faced legal action in the past for alleged extortion and review manipulation -- claims which the company has repeatedly denied. Yelp has faced additional backlash for the proliferation of fake reviews on its site

However, this is the first suit to object to Yelp’s utilization of reviewers as unpaid labor, exploiting “a vulnerable and disposable class of workers.” “By shirking its responsibilities to pay its workers,” states the document, the “defendant is in essence thumbing its nose both at their workers and the taxing authorities of all states and the U.S. government.”

With recent discussion surrounding the hot-button issues of writing for free and interning for free, unpaid reviews are in some ways simply the next step in demanding payment for labor. However, with over 47 million local reviews, it seems unlikely that Yelpers will be paid every time they pen a couple sentences about their trip to a new sushi restaurant. Yelp’s business model has always been built on unpaid reviewers freely choosing to share their opinions – a fact that no Yelper could have been unaware of when they spent five minutes writing their first review.  

Related: Are Internships About the Money?

Kate Taylor is a staff writer for Entrepreneur.com.

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