Avvo founder warns of legal threat to all ratings systems

The founder of controversial lawyer-rating site Avvo.com has said that a defeat for his company in a consumer protection lawsuit could threaten widespread product-rating systems on major sites such as Amazon.com.

Mark Britton told OUT-LAW that an Avvo defeat could have repercussions for ratings systems on major sites.

"I think there's a big concern here; I mean it when I say that this is an attempt to bomb us back to the stone age," he said, speaking to weekly technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio. "[Making] information flow more fluidly should be everyone's goal. To somehow strike against that hurts every site whether it's a site like Avvo or a site like Amazon or Buy.com."

Avvo is the subject of a class action lawsuit in Seattle, Washington. Steven Berman of Berman Seattle law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro has filed a class action suit on behalf of two lawyers who have objected to the system.

Berman said that his suit is based on state consumer protection laws. "The basis of the suit is that Avvo represents that it has an objective, scientific, mathematically-based rating system for lawyers so that consumers can make an informed decision," he said. "In fact there is no mathematical objective basis for rating these lawyers, it's a hodge podge of inaccurate and unscientific information."

Should Berman win his case and show that a system such as Avvo's is not transparent enough to avoid a charge of misleading consumers it could undermine the increasingly popular trend of having users produce reviews and scores for products and services, said Britton.

"The future is more information, not less," said Britton. "It is more opinions, not less. These are all activities that have happened at a communal level for years and years but with the advent of the internet we're able to share them across a global community."

"The internet is allowing us to have a global community. And you've certainly seen it within consumer products. You bring up Amazon; but there are literally thousands of sites now that allow consumers to have a voice. And that's just on the consumer side; on the media site you have companies like Avvo, but also blogs that are bringing a certain amount of content to bear to help consumers make more informed choices."

The suit is not based on defamation law which is famously liberal in the US. It does raise the question of how such ratings systems might be dealt with in the UK, though, and whether a score in the form of just a bald number could ever be defamatory.

Nigel Kissack is a litigation specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM. He said that the question was an interesting, if unresolved, one.

"I am not aware of any case involving a number being defamatory. Each case will be looked at on its own facts on whether it diminishes the reputation of someone who doesn't deserve it in the mind of the general public."

Kissack said he had found an old case which could shed some light on the issue. "There was a case in 1912 when a lawyer was called 'average' by a commentator and he sued for defamation and didn't succeed. The court held that calling a lawyer average was not defamatory," said Kissack.

"The number 5: is that average? Or the number 4? Given that all marking is pretty subjective, there is a degree of flexibility about the exact mark, it certainly wouldn't be. If a genuinely able and good lawyer was given a 1 which put him right at the bottom of the pile, that would harm his reputation."

Kissack said, though, that it would be an unusual case which tested the potentially defamatory nature of a number. "Damages aren't huge for defamation these days and getting the proof behind the process behind the '1' that emerged might put all but the very boldest or angriest of people off."