People read the employer-review site Glassdoor to get the scoop on what it’s really like to work at a given company. But Glassdoor is only as useful as its ability to preserve the anonymity of the current and former employees who share their impressions.
A new California court ruling offers a reminder that this anonymity—whether on Glassdoor or other sites—can’t always be guaranteed.
Magistrate judge Alex Tse of the US District Court in the Northern District of California has ordered Glassdoor to disclose the identities of people who left anonymous negative reviews about working at the New Zealand toy company Zuru. Zuru subpoenaed that information because the company, co-founded by siblings Mat, Nick, and Anna Mowbray, plans to file defamation lawsuits in New Zealand against the people who left the reviews.
“We are deeply disappointed in the [c]ourt’s decision, which was effectively decided under New Zealand law,” Glassdoor said in a statement.
Indeed, US law typically protects the right to anonymous speech under the First Amendment. The Zuru-Glassdoor case is unusual because it’s an example of US free-speech protections running up against other countries’ legal standards. And it could set a worrisome precedent.
Does US law protect anonymous online posts?
It’s common enough for companies to try to uncover the identities of people who criticize them anonymously online, according to Jeff Kosseff, an associate professor of cybersecurity at the US Naval Academy and the author of The United States of Anonymous: How the First Amendment Shaped Online Speech.
“This whole mechanism of companies being upset about what people write about them and then filing a lawsuit and using the subpoena process to unmask [people] has been going on since the beginning of the commercial internet,” says Kosseff.
Back in the 1990s, he says, many companies brought lawsuits against anonymous posters on Yahoo Finance. At the time, Yahoo Finance was “kind of revolutionary because it had bulletin boards for every publicly traded company, and you often had employees going on and trashing executives.”
Eventually, Kosseff says, advocacy groups like Public Citizen and the Electronic Frontier Foundation convinced US courts to develop greater protections for online anonymity. For example, if a company wants to unmask someone’s online identity, they have to demonstrate that they have a viable claim.
Kosseff says Glassdoor and Twitter are among the strongest corporate advocates for online anonymity.
Glassdoor “gets actively involved in litigation at its own cost to advocate for its users’ right to anonymous speech,” Kosseff says. There’s a good business reason for that: Presumably, “employees are more comfortable speaking on a platform that will stand up for them.”
So far, Glassdoor has been pretty successful in warding off other companies’ demands for identifiable information about its users. “We have succeeded in protecting the anonymity of our users in more than 100 cases filed against our users,” the company said in a statement.
Why did Zuru subpoena Glassdoor?
The Zuru case was an exception. It turns on the matter of six Glassdoor reviews that Zuru says are defamatory. One review refers to “toxic culture, hostile leadership, erratic strategy & extremely high turnover.” Another review, which (accurately) predicted that company leadership “will try [to] identify me,” describes that leadership as exploitative and “incompetant.” Yet another calls the company a “[b]urn out factory.”
Collectively, they make Zuru “sound like a horrible place to work,” judge Tse writes in the court order issued July 11.
Zuru claims these negative reviews, all of which were posted in the fall of 2021, may have been written or commissioned by the same person. In a statement, Glassdoor said that “contrary to Zuru’s contentions, the unflattering workplace experience reviews describing working at Zuru were authored by multiple former Zuru employees.”
After Zuru asked Glassdoor to take down the reviews, Glassdoor removed four of the six but left two others up, without explaining its reasoning, according to Zuru’s court filings. Glassdoor also refused to turn over identifying information about the users who’d created the posts.
Now Zuru says it wants to sue whoever posted the negative reviews for defamation on the grounds that their posts have harmed the company’s reputation and hurt its business. Zuru claims that one management candidate declined a job offer because of the online criticisms, which meant that Zuru had to spend “money and resources to recruit additional candidates for the position,” according to court papers.
Negative reviews are hardly a rare occurrence on Glassdoor—there are even negative reviews on the site of Glassdoor itself. Overall, Zuru has a rating of 4.3 stars out of 5, with 86% of current and former employees saying they’d recommend working there to a friend.
When US free-speech law doesn’t apply
In the court order telling Glassdoor to unmask the anonymous reviewers, Tse explains that their anonymity isn’t protected under the First Amendment because there is no reason to believe they are US citizens. (Zuru is headquartered in Shenzhen, China, and has offices in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.) Tse also notes that under New Zealand law, Zuru can support (if not necessarily prove) a defamation claim. New Zealand, along with many other countries, has defamation laws that are more plaintiff-friendly than those of the US.
“There’s good reason to tread lightly in applying US free-speech principles abroad,” Tse adds. “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.”
The ruling does not establish legal precedent. But Kosseff says that he worries about what could happen if the case went to the Ninth Circuit court on appeal.
“It would be good to get a precedent saying we’re going to set a high substantive standard for these subpoenas,” Kosseff says. But there’s always the danger that if the ninth circuit affirmed the ruling, “it could set precedent that has to be followed throughout the western US,” where many tech companies are based. The risk, he says, is a legal scenario in which “despite First Amendment protections for anonymous speech, we’re still allowing the use of much more oppressive defamation laws in other countries to unmask people.”
Glassdoor did not respond to a question about whether it plans to appeal the ruling. Zuru declined to tell the New Zealand Herald whether it still plans to pursue the defamation lawsuits in New Zealand. Zuru had not yet responded to Quartz’s request for comment at the time of publication.
Anonymity not guaranteed
Kosseff says the ruling underscores that people have to exercise caution when they post online, even on sites that pride themselves on preserving user anonymity. “It’s a scary situation because there are a lot of people, especially on Glassdoor, that have really valid reasons to post things,” he says.
For now, Glassdoor has posted a warning on the review page for Zuru noting that the company has taken legal action against the site and advising reviewers to “exercise your best judgment when evaluating this employer.”