Lawyer rating start-up and nascent online community Avvo scored a big win yesterday when it convinced a Washington district court to dismiss a putative class action lawsuit filed last June. Avvo aggregates available attorney information, assigns subjective (and undisclosed) value to various factors, and comes up with a 1-10 rating. (Initially, Avvo rated every lawyer in its database. Shortly after its launch, and after the lawsuit was filed, Avvo responded to concerns about this practice and altered its approach.) Avvo's ratings are thus generally analogous to Google's PageRank: factors are weighted and a score is assigned. The lawyer-plaintiffs in the suit challenged the accuracy and validity of Avvo's ratings and argued consumers would be misled by the flawed system. Avvo countered that the rating system yields no more than opinions entitled to absolute first amendment protection. The court agreed:
Avvo's website contains numerous reminders that the Avvo rating system is subjective. The ratings are described as an "assessment" or "judgment," two words that imply some sort of evaluative process. The underlying data is weighted based on Avvo's subjective opinions regarding the relative importance of various attributes, such as experience, disciplinary proceedings, client evaluations, and self-promotion. How an attribute is scored and how it is weighed in comparison with other attributes is not disclosed, but a reasonable person would understand that two people looking at the same underlying data could come up with vastly different ratings depending on their subjective views of what is relevant and important. . . . Neither the nature of the information provided nor the language used on the website would lead a reasonable person to believe that the ratings are a statement of actual fact.
This is obviously good news for Avvo, and for any site that crunches variables to assign a rating. As Mike Gunderloy observed when the suit against Avvo was filed, this includes much of the Web 2.0 ecosystem. While Mike was concerned primarily about protections available to rating systems based on user (i.e. third party) feedback, it's interesting to note that the court's decision to dismiss the suit against Avvo was based solely on the First Amendment and not on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides limited liability protection for assertions made by third parties. Section 230 played no role here despite the fact at least some of Avvo's ratings are based on third party assertions, specifically "peer endorsements." The Avvo plaintiffs apparently "disavowed any claim based on content that Avvo obtained from a third party," and there was thus no reason for the court to consider or discuss Avvo's Section 230 defense. Thus, as with the KinderStart case against Google dismissed earlier this year, this court found that an algorithmically generated opinion can't be "wrong," "inaccurate," or "invalid," and failed to consider the potential (ultimately probable) role of Section 230 in limiting claims of this kind.