According to “inside the beltway” publication The Hill, Yelp has hired a former Republican legislative aide as its first formal lobbyist. The lobbyist is Laurent Crenshaw, who was most recently an aide for House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Crenshaw will reportedly be addressing patent and copyright issues, including issues arising under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Crenshaw will also be involved with anti-SLAPP legislative efforts. SLAPPs are “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” which usually seek to censor speech including online criticism.
This goes to the heart of Yelp’s business, which is about the right to review businesses and corporations. Yelp itself cannot be sued for allegedly defamatory speech but its users (the content producers) still can. The company is seeking to promote anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent the chilling of reviews.
Yelp says it has also been targeted by “patent trolls” who use litigation as a way to extract IP licensing fees from companies.
What’s interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive about the hiring of Crenshaw is his Republican pedigree. In addition to Issa, Crenshaw has apparently worked exclusively for Republicans in Washington. Issa himself is one of the most “vigorous” and dogged critics of President Obama. He was awarded the title “conservative of the year” by long-established conservative publication Human Events. By contrast, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has made various political contributions as an individual to Democratic candidates and causes across the country.
Another interesting point: Republicans and political conservatives have traditionally not been in the anti-SLAPP camp. SLAPP suits are typically generated by business and corporate interests to silence their critics, who tend to be on the left. However, libertarians are historically strong supporters of free speech.
Yelp offered the following statement to us about why it decided to hire Crenshaw and more formally get into lobbying at this time:
We felt that it was time we had a full-time representative in Washington, DC to represent us and be a public face for the company in DC, especially now that we are a multi-billion-dollar public company with a presence in 24 countries that is accessed by well over 100 million people each month. Beyond serving as a resource for legislators interested in understanding more about user generated content, local search, and Internet competition issues, this representative will be focusing on a few key issues that are not necessarily unique to Yelp but critical to our company and our users. For example, Yelp has been a victim of patent trolls and we strongly support reform in this area and seek to add our voice, perspective and experience to the effort. Protecting consumer free speech on the Internet is another huge issue for us and our users; that’s why we seek anti-SLAAP legislation at the Federal level (as well as in states that do not provide consumers with the same strong protections as California and Texas) and strive to protect Sec 230 of the CDA which allows UGC sites like Yelp to exist and provide our service to consumers and SMBs without the threat of cost-prohibitive litigation over user content. Copyright issues are important to us, as well, including the misguided efforts of some SMBs to attempt to claim copyright ownership of their customers’ reviews, usually through a one-sided (and unenforceable) agreement to trade privacy protection for copyright.
Bottom line: Washington is dealing with important issues that can affect our company and our users and the time is right for us to have a seat at the table.