Guest Blog: Josh King of Avvo Talks the Importance of the CPA to Business

The Citizen Participation Act – Benefitting Consumers AND Businesses

Josh King is vice president of business development & general counsel of Avvo.com

One major change that the internet has wrought is the move of “word-of-mouth” online. Where consumers might previously have told just their immediate circle about a wonderful (or horrible) experience with a product or service provider, these opinions can now be gathered, aggregated and disseminated widely. The rise of these “reputation ecosystems” has given consumers access to vastly more information than they had previously.

Thinking about buying a new scanner? Amazon lets you check out 136 reviews of the Fujitsu Scansnap 1500, helpfully sorted by “favorable” and “critical” reviews.

Considering taking a job at Microsoft? Glassdoor has over 1000 reviews, sorted by department and role.

Do you – ahem – need a DUI lawyer in Atlanta? William “Bubba” Head has over 100 client reviews on Avvo.

The benefit to consumers from access to this information is obvious: the aggregated experience of other consumers allows one to make better choices when purchasing goods or services. But these reviews are also very useful to business. Reviews offer confirmation of what a business is doing right, and incredibly useful information about things that are going wrong. A robust reputational ecosystem acts like a form of free and highly efficient market research; a never-ending focus group that businesses can use to get closer to their clients and improve their offerings.

This doesn’t mean that all reviews are equally valuable. Any review system contains the potential for businesses to provide their own laudatory “astroturfing” reviews, or for clients with grudges or unreasonable expectations to leave feedback that isn’t helpful (businesses tend to underestimate how savvy consumers are at figuring out and discounting these types of reviews). The key, however, is to ensure that the review system is as robust as possible, so the maximum amount of feedback is encouraged, thus painting an accurate, aggregate picture of the product or service experience. Critical to this is that those with negative feedback must not be impeded from participating.

While larger consumer product companies and local businesses like restaurants and bars have grown accustomed to the rise of online word-of-mouth, the adjustment seems to be difficult for other small businesses. Rather than viewing negative feedback or low ratings as an opportunity to learn and improve, some such businesses have resorted to threats or lawsuits in an effort to have negative reviews or ratings taken down.

In the case of Avvo, we experienced this first-hand when attorneys unhappy with their Avvo Ratings filed a federal class action lawsuit against us days after we launched the site. Happily, that case was unceremoniously tossed out of court, but what would have happened if we did not possess the experience or resources to fight that case? Avvo as it exists today – offering an unprecedented level of legal guidance to 2 million consumers every month – would not be around.

While that fight is behind us, we have seen several cases where an attorney, unhappy with a negative review, will threaten a defamation lawsuit to intimidate a client into taking a review down. Most of these threats involve relatively run-of-the-mill negative reviews, as Avvo screens out reviews containing ad hominem attacks or other offensive content. And while Avvo does not respond to such threats, and is obviously immune from such suit anyway, those leaving reviews aren’t in the same position.

That’s why Avvo supports the Citizen Participation Act. While leaving intact the ability to seek damages for those who have actually been defamed, the Act provides a consistent federal standard that protects the right of the public to comment. Attorneys are in a unique position to leverage their facility with the law to seek to quell non-defamatory commentary. Without anti-SLAPP protection, many commentators will throw in the towel rather than risk a fight with an attorney. This hurts Avvo’s ability to provide a forum for consumer legal guidance, and hurts consumers who would otherwise benefit from learning about the experience of others in dealing with a particular attorney.

We’ve had to stand on our First Amendment rights, and we want our users – both consumers and those attorneys who seek client feedback and learn from it – to benefit from a robust reputational forum. We’ve written to our Representative, telling the story of how Avvo has been specifically impacted by this issue. I encourage any other businesses or individuals with a similar story to tell to do the same. The Citizen Participation Act offers an important step toward protecting the online forums that Avvo and others provide and that all businesses can benefit from.

3 Comments

  1. This Friday I will interview Josh King, Vice President and General Counsel of AVVO. AVVO rates American lawyers in two ways: 1. A “resume rating” from 1-10; and, 2. A consumer rating 1-5 stars. Mr. King is also an expert on legal ethics and first amendment rights in the context of lawyer advertising.
    This will be my second interview of an AVVO executive. About 2 years ago, I interviewed Conrad Saam who was then AVVO’s VP in charge of marketing. Back then, AVVO was a source of controversy as several lawyers sued the company over issues concerning lawyer ratings.
    This Friday, I will explore Mr. King’s views on freedom of speech rights verses state bars’ authority to regulate the practice of law. We will also discuss how AVVO has changed in the past two years and what lies ahead for AVVO .

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