Topic: Science and Technology
The Scoreboard has misgivings about hanging the Unethical Website medal around the cyber-neck of this month's winner, LawyerRatingz.com. Like other ratings sites popping up around the Web like toadstools, this one allows anonymous posters to explain why they liked or didn't like the services they for got for their money. Similar sites exist to praise or savage doctors, accountants, professors, realtors, high school teachers and other professions.
Making information available is what the web does best, so rating lawyers on line to permit a potential client to research the experiences of others would seem, at first blush, to be a valuable public service. But first blushes are deceiving, and so, in all likelihood, is LawyerRatingz.com. The site trumpets its mission by saying that…
…but that's not necessarily true. Because all ratings are anonymous, there is no way to know for certain whether a poster was even a client of the lawyer being rated. (The Boston Globe's Sacha Pfeiffer found a rave review of one Boston lawyer that ended with, "… he's a cool Dad, too!" Now there's an unbiased endorsement!) Clients have no existing impediment to letting a lawyer know what "they really think;" they can write those things called letters. Anonymous statements are of no use to lawyers in their work, and I would presume that of all professions, theirs would be the least likely to respect any opinion without a name behind it.
In the opinion of the Scoreboard, that's the right attitude. Imagine, before the internet, that someone took it upon themselves to mail out thousands of anonymous letters to strangers alleging that you were incompetent, dishonest, lazy or ineffective at your job. Would you consider that fair or a part of an underhanded scheme to destroy you from the shadows? Would you ever consider doing such a thing to someone else, no matter how disappointed you were with their work? If you received such a letter about someone you knew, would you have more doubts about your acquaintance or the reputation assassin who sent it?
Try as it might, the Scoreboard can't see the difference between the cowardly letter writer and the anonymous on-line critic. What's an unfairly maligned professional to do? A federal law called the Communications Decency Act protects websites from lawsuits over materials posted by third parties, allowing them to publish anonymous attacks with impunity, even defamatory ones. One can't confront a nameless and faceless accuser. While these sites encourage those criticized to post rebuttals, that option is mostly impossible for a lawyer, who is required to keep the confidences of clients even after they publish lies about him or her in cyberspace.
Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney for the admirable Electronic Frontier Foundation, was quoted by the Globe story as saying that anonymity is "absolutely vital to allowing the Internet to function as it does." That may be true, but there is a lot of bad bathwater surrounding that baby. Anonymity permits the Web to be a place where abusive, obscene and uncivil discourse reigns supreme, for example. And in the reluctant opinion of the Scoreboard, anonymity renders the legitimate public service value of LawyerRatingz.com negligible at best. Negative comments that cannot be authenticated and that could originate from rivals, pranksters or even angry adversaries seeking revenge for a courtroom thrashing can discourage potential clients from engaging good lawyers ("Why take a chance?") and positive comments posted by unethical lawyers, their staffs or family members can fool LawyerRatingz.com visitors into retaining a shyster.
One of the great dangers of the Web community's uncritical embrace of anonymity is that it has made many people forget what's ethically objectionable about circulating unsigned opinions. There is no accountability, which means that there is no reliability. Those who are accused cannot confront their accuser. And the practice institutionalizes cowardice.
The Ethics Scoreboard has consistently condemned anonymous action except in the most extreme circumstances. Anonymity is unethical when it is exploited by leakers; it is unethical when it is used by workers who complain about sexual harassment or other misconduct, and it is even unethical for those who post stinging rebuttals to blog posts and editorials on line. LawyerRatingz.com not only permits anonymous attacks and encourages them, it insists upon them. Good intentions or not, that's enough to make it the Ethics Scoreboard's Unethical Website of the Month.