Law in the Internet Society

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False Feedback Systems and Credence in Online Reputation

Proxies are inherently imperfect, and those imperfections can encourage manipulation. A strong reputation merely correlates with desirable attributes; it is not a perfect proxy for those attributes. As a result, there is a danger that increased reliance on individuals’ reputations for sorting purposes will prompt individuals or firms to overinvest in actions that will improve their reputations, such as pandering for or attempting to buy approval. While this kind of activity may boost feedback ratings, it has the potential to degrade the very essence of a reputation-rating resource – quality and accuracy. For this reason, rating firms like Yelp and eBay have devoted substantial resources to trying to punish firms that employ these tactics eBay, Upcoming Changes to Feedback, ? " target="_top">]].

It is sometimes tempting to use the imperfections in feedback systems as a basis for rejecting their use, but one cannot contrast the occasionally flawed information that an eBay-style reputation tracking mechanism can generate with a world of perfectly accurate information about individuals because completely transparent data does not exist. However, because most feedback providers are sincere and because various algorithms can help the owners or users of these sites weigh the feedback provided by reviewers who have proven their reliability, the accuracies in reflections are quite high. Therefore, there exists an inherent whistle-blowing mechanism that will deter excessive investments in reputation – namely the fact that overreliance on particular proxies might contribute to their deterioration as a signal of quality.

Despite any perceived inadequacies in the above system, the government has declined to become involved in removing or regulating the falsities in these reputational feedback systems. There are market actors with substantial comparative advantages over the government, and they are already doing a fine job of making new information available to the public. In these settings, the government’s role may be most properly confined to facilitating the adoption of uniform standards so that information can be aggregated easily from among a number of different websites, and reputations can be transported from one site to another See generally Nolan Miller et al., Eliciting Informative Feedback: The Peer-Prediction Model, 51 Mgmt. Sci. 1359 (2005)? .

Recent case law has similarly discouraged governmental involvement in the generation of scores or ratings. For example, Browne v. Avvo, Inc. Browne v. Avvo, Inc., 525 F.Supp.2d 1249 (2007)? involved a website that rates lawyers, The website aspired to do for attorneys what Yelp did for restaurants – provide consumers with information they could use to find a suitable lawyer and collect evaluations from fellow attorneys and clients. However, within ten days of its launch, Avvo was sued in a class action by attorneys alleging that Avvo had violated Washington State’s Consumer Protection Act Washington Consumer Protection Act, Rcw 19.86.020? by disseminating unfair and deceptive information about lawyers who were rated by the site.

More precisely, the complaint faulted Avvo for being subjective and unreliable; providing questionably low numerical ratings to highly regarded lawyers; using a non-transparent methodology for developing lawyer ratings; and providing incomplete information. Plaintiff Browne was an attorney who claimed to have lost two clients due to a poor rating that was tied to his admonition in a state bar disciplinary proceeding against him John Cook, Respected Lawyer Wants Rating Site Avvo Closed, Seattle Post Intelligencer, June 12, 2007? .

Avvo moved for dismissal, arguing that its’ services were protected by the First Amendment and that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act. The district court granted the motion for dismissal on both grounds. If Avvo were liable for its conduct, then under similar logic, Yelp could be liable for unfavorable restaurant reviews that resulted in a poor rating, AngiesList? could be liable to independent contractors that were poorly reviewed for construction projects and lost future bids for household repairs, and eBay may be liable to vendors that could not make sales due to poor feedback ratings.

Of course, removing the possibility of liability in cases where inaccurate feedback is reported on a ratings website creates the potential danger of diminishing the quality of the published feedback, similar to the risk of declining quality in newspaper reporting that might occur if defamation was eliminated. However, the decline in the quality of ratings and information would not be inevitable; it would depend on whether market forces were in place to provide adequate incentives to keep the information on reputation ratings sites generally accurate.

The court likely made the correct determination in Avvo because individuals like Browne who believe that false information was disseminated about them have a right of reply – an ability to explain why they believe they received inappropriate ratings from a website or a complaining consumer. This right of reply is already built into most consumer feedback systems. Just as Congress enacted 230 of the Communications Decency Act Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. 230? to avoid chilling internet discussion, courts are providing immunity against tort suits stemming from unflattering ratings, so long as the defendant offers the poorly rated individual or firm a right of reply similar to eBay’s. This rule permits a vendor to point out possible biases that formed the basis for an unfair rating.

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Revision 1r1 - 24 Oct 2011 - 03:34:57 - StacyMarquez
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