For more than 100 million people each month, the local review site Yelp provides information on businesses from restaurants to sporting goods stores and everything in between. Registered users of the site can give feedback, suggestions, post pictures or just share their thoughts about the places they frequent. Potential patrons can make more informed decisions based on those reviews. Recently, Yelp has taken itself to Washington, D.C., but this time it’s not as a local review destination; they are going to Washington with a lobbyist.
It was announced in October and made official in November; Yelp has hired Laurent Crenshaw, a former aide to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca), as their first official lobbyist. As listed on its official lobbying disclosure form, Crenshaw will be focused on patent reform, the Innovation Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (Anti-SLAPP) legislation.
Patent law has been a major issue for Yelp as they, along with Groupon, Foursquare, MyLikes and IZEA, are currently embroiled in a patent-infringement case against a company called Blue Calypso, filed in the Eastern District of Texas, a veritable hotbed for patent troll cases. MyLikes has already decided to settle in this case, which does not bode well for Yelp. Hence the new-found attention on patent reform law. Other patent trolls, shell companies that exist for the sole purpose of earning money through the legal system, have targeted Yelp in the past as well.
This is where Crenshaw comes in. With his new role in D.C., Yelp hopes to encourage the passage of the Innovation Act of 2013 and future patent reform. “Mr. Crenshaw may be able to use any connections he established to lobby senators in the Senate’s Patent Transparency and Improvements Act bill,” said Robert King, an Atlanta-based attorney with the law firm Hunton and Williams, licensed to practice in the Eastern District of Texas and before the US Patent and Trademark Office, among other districts. Those connections may be very important as the Innovation Act of 2013 heads towards the Senate. The passage of that law would put a damper on patent troll cases, which have been estimated at costing the economy upwards of $29 billion dollars a year.
“The hiring of Mr. Crenshaw gives Yelp access to a very influential Republican congressmen, Congressman Issa,” said King. Rep. Issa has a history of supporting patent reform and may be able to encourage passage of similar laws in the future. The other reason Rep Issa is so key, King said, is “Mr. Crenshaw’s relationship with Congressman Issa … may help Yelp influence both the anti-SLAPP legislation.”
Anti-SLAPP legislation is key for Yelp’s business model as they rely on public honesty for its credibility. Yelp has been vocal about not allowing advertising dollars to influence the reviews found on its site, stating, “paying advertisers can never change or re-order their reviews.” But through SLAPP laws, businesses could sue reviewers, silencing critics and burdening them with exorbitant legal fees, halting engagement on sites like Yelp. Anti-SLAPP legislation protects the reviewers and the business alike.
However, Republicans are not commonly in favor of Anti-SLAPP legislation. Crenshaw’s connection with the Republican Party may provide some influence for Yelp’s cause. Crenshaw previously worked for Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is now a senator in Missouri.