What can go wrong with legal info online?

When talking to other researchers and practitioners working on improving the Internet, much of the discussion is around:

  • Trust and Safety
  • Privacy
  • Misinformation, Disinformation
  • Polarization
  • Extremism

What’s happening in the domain of legal help doesn’t fit neatly into these common categories of concerns. Compared to issues around elections, vaccines, terrorism, self-harm, and child abuse — legal help topics and scenarios are a different kind of domain.

The harms and benefits for someone searching online about a life crisis are in a different world than these policy topics that are frequently discussed by tech platforms and search engines as ‘high priority’.

Our group at Stanford Legal Design Lab has been researching what these online harms & scenarios are. They have some crossover into the themes of possible harms (polarizing people, violating their privacy, giving misinformation). But the legal help online harms or problems take a different shape that it’s worth exploring in more detail.

Here are some of the online harms we’ve seen in our research so far on legal help searches, websites, and social media use. These are some of the categories that would be worthwhile to focus on in this specific domain:

  • Accidental Misinformation: When a search engine misdirects people (on accident) to information that is a mismatch to their jurisdiction or issue. They send them to the wrong authority — like to a Maine site for a California issue. Then the person relies on the Maine law, which will give them the wrong rights, rules, process, forms, and deadlines.
  • Intentional Misinformation – Pay for Free: When a commercial organization is trying to sell a free, government-sponsored form, process, or service. They actively try to compete with the website or resource from the government. They want to get consumers to pay their company for access to the form or the process. They do not want the consumer to know about this free version — and instead use this for-profit, costly version.
  • Irresponsible Misinformation – Too General or Oversimplified: This is when a lawyer or legal group is way too casual in how it’s representing the law, process, rights, and options. They may want to simplify it, to connect with the audience — or to make their account or site reach as wide an audience as possible. But in this simplification, they might end up misrepresenting what the law is & leading to people relying on an incorrect interpretation of the law.
  • Intentional Misinformation – False Anxiety: When a group, often a lawyer or other ‘expert’, exaggerates the risk or penalties a person might face in their situation. The lawyer’s business model depends on more paying clients, who wants to hire a lawyer to manage the process, deal with the risk, and avoid penalties. To this end, some of these experts online would try to scare the website visitor with all of the possible consequences and risks they face. Even if the chance of these penalties is small or low-stakes, the expert may try to frame them as extreme so that the visitor is more likely to pay for their advice and services.
  • The issue with the ‘false anxiety’ is that this will be a spectrum. A lawyer’s role often is to inform people of possible risks and penalties. They should not be downplaying possible consequences a person faces. But the problem arises when they make a person feel that a small action they have taken will have devastating life consequences unless they hire a lawyer to resolve it.

We need to do more research to identify examples of misinformation & harms in this domain of legal help. If you have ideas or anecdotes, please let us know!

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