Court tosses suit against Avvo, concluding algorithmic ratings are protected speech

Court tosses suit against Avvo, concluding algorithmic ratings are protected speech

Summary: 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.

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TOPICS: Google
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Court tosses suit against Avvo, concluding algorithmic ratings are protected speechLawyer 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.

Topic: Google

Denise Howell

About Denise Howell

Denise Howell is an appellate, intellectual property and technology lawyer who enjoys broad industry recognition for her expertise on the intersection of emerging technologies and law.

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3 comments
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  • Thoughts from Avvo's CEO

    Denise ? Mike, you and some observant others have correctly characterized this case from the beginning as being about more than just Avvo. The lawsuit attacked not only the Avvo Rating but also the opinions of consumers (client ratings) and lawyers (peer endorsements) on our site. It is a case that never should have been filed, and if successful threatened to bomb all of Web 2.0 back to the Stone Age.

    Here is the reality, albeit a painful reality for some: The Web is breaking down barriers and giving a voice to many who previously did not. That is the essence of Web 2.0 ? providing the masses with new platforms and better technology that enable their sharing of information and opinions at a rate and scale that was previously unimaginable. Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Digg and even blogs like yours, Denise. Where were we without these sites, and all of the information and opinions they offer, only a couple of years ago? Sadly, the plaintiffs in Browne v. Avvo wanted to take us on this trip back in time.

    At Avvo, our mission is to offer consumers information and guidance to help them choose the right lawyer. To date, consumers? #1 resource when hiring a lawyer (after word of mouth) has been the Yellow Pages, and we all know how much unbiased information and guidance paid advertising offers. Avvo offers the Avvo Rating, client ratings, peer endorsements, attorney discipline records and a question and answer forum called ?Avvo Answers? that allows consumers to ask questions and lawyers to answer them. All of this information comes together to give consumers a better place to start. How anyone would want to tear that down is beyond me.

    In closing, I would like to thank you, Denise, for your balanced coverage of Avvo and the lawsuit. Thank you also for having us on TWIL so that we could tell our side of the story at a time when many were simply reporting what they read in the plaintiffs? complaint.

    Regards,

    Mark Britton
    CEO, Avvo, Inc.
    avvo ceo
    • Thanks!

      For thinking of this missing link in assessing Lawyers.
      I'm going to go and look mine up. Good person while
      some others have not been so good and just after the
      buck first and seeing how much time they can reasonably
      bill you for.
      doug16
  • Sydney lawyers, Melbourne Lawyers

    Good idea to throw out the suit. http://www.getalawyer.com.au also rates Australian lawyers esp in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin.
    sydney lawyers