If you’re a web worker, your online life is shot through with ratings, rankings, and peer-to-peer connections. Whether it’s setting the noise level on a site like SlashDot, keeping an eye on the top stories at Digg, or depending on feedback to decide whether a seller at Ebay is reliable, we’ve all gotten used to the idea that there is wisdom in crowds. So why not let the crowds help you in picking an attorney when you need one. Right? Except legal eagles think it is a bad idea.
That’s why the recent launch of lawyer-rating site Avvo and a subsequent lawsuit are worth knowing about. Depending on what happens here, this particular bit of Web 2.0 could run up against some old-fashioned Law 1.0 in a way that puts a lot of sites out of business. If the plaintiffs win, be prepared to have many of the sites that you depend on change substantially.
Here are the facts (keep in mind the usual I Am Not A Lawyer disclaimer): Avvo lists all the lawyers in the country and rates them on a 1 to 10 scale. The rating algorithm is (shades of Google) proprietary and secret, but takes into account things like years of experience, published articles, professional memberships, and so on. It also takes into account information supplied by lawyers themselves, such as awards they’ve received, and endorsements from one lawyer to another.
Now Avvo has been sued by a pair of Washington State attorneys (in a complaint that applies for class-action status) on the grounds that the Avvo rating system is unfair and deceptive and thus violates the Washington Consumer Protection Act which provides simply:
Unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of commerce are hereby declared unlawful.
The basic thrust of the argument is that the Avvo system is unreliable, subject to manipulation, biased, and inaccurate, and so generally bad that it needs to be shut down. There are some additional grounds of action that are peculiar to the case (based on the fact that Avvo’s CEO himself is a lawyer and may be violating professional ethics by publicly rating other lawyers), but clearly the major count is so broad that it applies to just about any peer ratings based system, or any site that ranks and rates people at all.
How much should you worry about this if you run a Web 2.0 site with a ratings system? It’s hard to say at this point. Avvo, of course, promises to fight the lawsuit, apparently on First Amendment grounds. And legal analyst Denise Howell suggests that there’s another potential defense in the part of the Communications Decency Act that shields service providers who only distill information that they pass along from others.
Still, we all know that the courts are capable of most anything, and internet law is far from settled. This is an area that warrants monitoring, and if your business depends on ratings and rankings (particularly of a potentially litigious community) you ought to start thinking about contingency plans in case Avvo loses.