Who’s Putting a Price on Free Legal Aid?
Search engines can cost poor clients, lawyer advertisers
Posted Sep 1, 2008 7:15 AM CST
By Terry Carter
The Arkansas legal services partnership does just what the name is understood to mean: It offers free legal aid to people who meet federal poverty guidelines, with a big chunk of its budget coming from the Legal Services Corp.
Go to the website at arlegalservices.org and find links for free legal forms, foreclosure help and disaster help, among other offerings. The Internet has made it much easier for poor folks to find legal aid.
But then go to arlegalservices.com (rather than dot-org) and find even more links for free legal forms and free legal aid. Click through and there are many more of the same.
Warning to the wary: Click, but hold fast to your wallet. Warning to the less sophisticated: Sorry, it’s probably too late.
The Internet has also made it much easier to squeeze a little money from those seeking legal aid—and from legitimate Web advertisers.
Siphoning the poor away from legal aid organizations, usually without the clients ever knowing what happened, is big business if the sheer numbers of such efforts are any measure. In 2006, researchers found that 42 percent of 138 LSC-funded programs had been subjected to cybersquatting via similar domain names. These and other findings by the Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project prompted various groups around the country to buy up as many similar or related URLs as possible at under $10 a year each.
“They’re clearly trying to get to people who have critical legal matters and who don’t have resources to pay,” says Gabrielle Hammond, who led the study and is former executive director of LSNTAP. “I’d like to know what their business model is.”
In part, it probably is this: Even the poor are likely to have at least occasional Internet access. And entrepreneurs can make money off them because, with the huge volume of Web use, pennies picked up here and there can pile high. It doesn’t matter whether the searchers actually end up with lawyers who help them.
“Domain parking”—gaming URLs with ads that look like content—is but one of many methods, and perhaps the fastest-growing.
The domain name arlegalservices.com used to belong to the real deal, and anyone who landed there was instantly redirected to the dot-org version. But the registration lapsed and someone else grabbed it up.
At first, porn popped up on the webpage. The Arkansas Legal Services Partnership could have bought the page back for nearly $1,900; the group had better things to do with its money.
Whoever owns the site now has put up genuine legal-aid-looking links that actually go to for-profit companies. The owner probably gets a little money for clicks to those sites, which in turn likely make money for clicks to others. Eventually, further up this food chain of crumbs, another might get paid for ultimately providing a lead to a lawyer.
Ownership of arlegalservices.com is withheld at the domain registration website Whois.net. The URL is registered instead under a privacy proxy company, this one appropriately named Whois Privacy Protection Service Inc.
“The person who secured the domain isn’t necessarily trying to capture traffic to convert it themselves, but instead is probably taking advantage of the economics of the search referral market,” says Mark O’Brien, founder and CEO of Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit organization that helps legal service organizations nationwide. That referral traffic sometimes works for advertisers and lawyers who pay them for leads.
Another approach has for-profit entities adopting names with legal aid in the title. Several recent lawsuits, especially in California federal courts, charge these for-profits with trademark infringement, false advertising or unfair competition.
“A lot of these clients simply accept the fact that they’re being asked to pay something for legal aid because they don’t fully understand how it works,” says Kathleen Caldwell, website director for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which provides free legal help for low-income people in Maine. “We got a call from someone recently wanting to know why we asked for their credit card information. We didn’t.”
Some cybertricks are outright scams, taking money and providing no service—or a piece of paper or two that would be free elsewhere. Some have nonlawyers engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
And some lawyer advertisers are being charged by the click-through rate for clicks on sites reached by mistake. In July, Boston lawyer Hal K. Levitte sued Google and requested a class action, claiming his purchase of search terms resulted in “low-quality ads” on parked domains and error pages that cost him $136.11 but brought no conversions to sales.
WHO IS TO BLAME?
More and more, though, as happened with the arkansas group, so-called domainers are grabbing up or creating URLs that will be hit in Web searches along with genuine legal aid groups. It often is difficult to find out who is the bad guy—or even whether there is one other than market forces.
“With enough diffuse responsibility in this chain of advertising, everybody points a finger at somebody else and denies responsibility for what happened,” says Eric Goldman, who teaches cyberlaw and intellectual property at the Santa Clara University School of Law. “But in the end, the entire chain may produce unacceptable results.”
For example, LegalMatch, which charges lawyers fees up to tens of thousands of dollars for passing along potential clients after vetting them, has had its share of complaints since its launch in 2000. But some of its harshest critics say LegalMatch got a bum rap in 2006 when Pine Tree Legal Assistance sued the San Francisco-based company in Maine’s federal court. The suit alleged advertisements aping Pine Tree came up on Yahoo and other search engines when using the search terms Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Those advertisements clicked through to legalmatch.com.
Within weeks, LegalMatch settled. Among other things, the company agreed not to use the search term legal aid.
Apparently it never had. “The only search terms we used in that instance were legal services,” says Ken LaMance, LegalMatch director of client relations.
Apparently, Yahoo’s search optimization software and algorithms linked search terms for legal aid with the term legal services, and in Maine the two often go together with Pine Tree. The search engine would then package the terms in an ad with links to the advertiser. The concept is called broad matching.
Thus, as the lawsuit noted, one resulting ad said “find Pine Tree Legal Assistance Service,” but took searchers instead to LegalMatch’s site, touted in the ad correctly as a “free, easy, confidential service to find a pre-screened lawyer in your area.”
Google and Yahoo offer some free search-term advertising to nonprofits to help them ensure their own presence on the Web. But at some point, they believe it is up to the consumer to beware in the marketplace: Their algorithmic systems are programmed to show relevant ads based on search terms.
“We have policies to make sure the landing page URL in fact goes there, and people are not selling things not allowed to be sold,” says Deanna Yick, a Google spokeswoman. “But we can’t go in and change the results.”
The ABA Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services held public hearings about cybersquatting and other technology issues at the association’s annual meeting in August. (The reporter of this article testified about cybersquatting and domain parking at those hearings.)
“Courts are realizing you can’t assume the advertiser bought the search terms that cause their ads to display,” Goldman says. He points to two recent rulings in trademark disputes.
In May 2007 a federal judge in Arizona ruled in Rhino Sports Inc. v. Sport Court Inc. that because of broad matching, “a party can appear as a sponsor link one day and not appear the next day, or even appear for terms that were never purchased.”
Last March a federal judge in the Middle District of Florida, ruling in Orion Bancorp Inc. v. Orion Residential Finance, ordered the defendant to include purchases of a “negative keyword” for Orion’s Internet ads, which would prevent it from coming up in searches for the plaintiff.
That sort of negativity might be better than having an anonymous entrepreneur in another country suddenly put pornography on what had been a legal aid website. That’s why, except for the dot-com site the domainer got, Arkansas Legal Services bought up 45 URLs and keeps them current, says Vincent Morris, associate director of technology and justice projects.
“It was almost better when porn was up because visitors could tell they were in the wrong place and not getting free legal services,” says Morris.