A California court has ordered employer-rating site Glassdoor to hand over the identities of users who claimed they had negative experiences working for New Zealand toy giant Zuru.
In a decision that could prompt unease for online platforms that rely on anonymity to attract candid reviews, Glassdoor was ordered to provide the information so Zuru could undertake defamation proceedings against the reviewers in New Zealand.
Glassdoor is an international website where people post anonymous reviews of their current or former employers. Zuru is an international toy manufacturer that was founded in New Zealand and now has a billion-dollar turnover.
After an anonymous person or people wrote reviews alleging that Zuru was a “toxic” workplace, the company began pursuing a defamation suit against them – but first had to find out their identities.
California district court judge Alex Tse wrote in his decision that the reviews refer to Zuru as a “[b]urn out factory” with a “toxic culture,” where an “incompetent” management team “consistently talk[s] down” to employees and treats them like “dirt”.
The judge wrote that the reviews make Zuru “sound like a horrible place to work”.
Zuru says these and similar statements in the reviews are false and have cost them financially.
The company argued that it “has had to expend money, time, and resources in combatting the negative publicity, negative perception, and harm to [Zuru’s] reputation that the [r]eviews have caused”,
It wants to sue the reviewers for defamation in New Zealand, the country where the company was founded and where the reviewer or reviewers allegedly worked.
Tse ruled that New Zealand’s defamation laws are the relevant ones in this case, and ordered that Glassdoor hand over identifying information.
New Zealand has stricter defamation laws than the US, where there are far greater free speech protections.
Tse wrote: “There’s good reason to tread lightly in applying US free-speech principles abroad. Our country’s commitment to free speech isn’t universally shared; and even in other countries that protect free speech, a different balance is often struck between the right to free speech and the right to protect one’s reputation.
“Glassdoor wants to safeguard anonymous speech on its website. Zuru wants to protect its reputation. Both interests can’t simultaneously be accommodated.”
Many online entities – including giants like Yelp, Google and Reddit – rely on anonymised reviews of businesses as a central part of their model.
Asked whether the prospect of a lawsuit would be sufficient to discourage people from posting anonymous reviews, Wellington media lawyer Steven Price said it was unlikely.
He said that the cost of bringing defamation cases was often high for companies or individuals – and some would be put off by the prospect of bringing more attention to defamatory comments.
Zuru did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement provided to Businessdesk, a spokesperson said the company agreed with the court’s decision.
“These proceedings began after a series of fake reviews were posted publicly on Glassdoor. We are pleased that this spam has now been removed,” she said. “We cannot comment on anything further relating to pending litigation.”
On its website, the company says “Zuru’s owners greatly value each and everyone one of our employees, as much as they do their own family … who they just so happen to be in business with”.
Glassdoor released a statement saying that it was “deeply disappointed in the court’s decision, which was effectively decided under New Zealand law”.
“In this and many other cases worldwide, Glassdoor fights vigorously to protect and defend the rights of our users to share their opinions and speak freely and authentically about their workplace experiences.”
Glassdoor said it had fought a number of defamation-type cases, and they “prevail in the vast majority of these types of cases”.
“To date, we have succeeded in protecting the anonymity of our users in more than 100 cases filed against our users,” it said. Glassdoor did not respond to questions on whether it intended to appeal, or whether it had disclosed the identity of the reviewers concerned.
The judge ruled that Glassdoor did not need to identify the number of people who have seen or engaged with the reviews, which it argued it could not do without undue burden and expense.
July 19, 2022 at 11:12AM Tess McClure