silly lawsuit of the week

OK. Short version of the story in InformationWeek: Woman puts up a website. She puts a “webwrap” agreement at the bottom – i.e. basically a contract that says if you use the site then you agree to the contract. Still some question as to whether such a mechanism is binding, but anyway…

So the Internet Archive of course comes along and indexes her site. Which apparently is a violation of the webwrap. So she sues, representing herself, I believe. The court throws out everything on a preliminary motion by IA except for the breach of contract.

InformationWork observes that “Her suit asserts that the Internet Archive’s programmatic visitation of her site constitutes acceptance of her terms, despite the obvious inability of a Web crawler to understand those terms and the absence of a robots.txt file to warn crawlers away.” (my emphasis). They then conclude with this statement:

If a notice such as Shell’s is ultimately construed to represent just such a “meaningful opportunity” to an illiterate computer, the opt-out era on the Net may have to change. Sites that rely on automated content gathering like the Internet Archive, not to mention Google, will have to convince publishers to opt in before indexing or otherwise capturing their content. Either that or they’ll have to teach their Web spiders how to read contracts.

(my emphasis).

They already have – sort of. It’s called robots.txt – the thing referred to above. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, its a little file that you put on the top level of your site and which is the equivalent of a “no soliciation” sign on your door. Its been around for at least a decade (probably longer) and most (if not all) search engines

From the Internet Archive’s FAQ:

How can I remove my site’s pages from the Wayback Machine?

The Internet Archive is not interested in preserving or offering access to Web sites or other Internet documents of persons who do not want their materials in the collection. By placing a simple robots.txt file on your Web server, you can exclude your site from being crawled as well as exclude any historical pages from the Wayback Machine.

Internet Archive uses the exclusion policy intended for use by both academic and non-academic digital repositories and archivists. See our exclusion policy.

You can find exclusion directions at exclude.php. If you cannot place the robots.txt file, opt not to, or have further questions, email us at info at archive dot org.

standardized methods of communications – privacy policies, etc. – more. Question is, will people be required to use it, or simply disregard and act dumb?

press neutrality and lawsuits

Techcrunch (Mr. Arrington) has put up an article suggesting Digg sue Wired (that’s also the headline – “Digg Should Sue Wired”). Because Wired posted some negative reviews of Digg. And because Wired’s parent, Condé Nast, owns a competitor of Digg (reddit). The nub:

Digg can’t treat Wired like any other user that’s engaged in fraud. Wired is the press, and the press has tremendous power. Wired is putting Digg in an impossible situation, and they should be called on it. Reporting news is one thing (although they should note the conflict of interest there as well), but actively creating negative news about a competitor and then using the massive reach of Wired to promote that “news” is way over the line.

Very strog words indeed. I’m quite surprised by this comment, as I understand Mr. Arrington has legal training and in fact practiced as a lawyer for some time. Why surprised? Because, apart from the possibility that the reporter who wrote the second article to which he refers (who basically tried to see if Digg’s system of user rankings could be “gamed”) breached Digg’s terms of use (of course – because rightly so their terms would prohibit such gaming…), its really, really tough for me to see exactly what Digg should sue Wired for? What exactly is the cause of action? Surely he’s not accusing Digg of actually committing fraud, is he? It difficult for me to see how fraud has been committed – what exactly is fraudulent about the articles?

Sure, there is a conflict of interest situation here, the usual cure for which is full disclosure, but hardly the basis for a lawsuit. And if he thinks that Wired suffers from conflict of interest, well, I invite him to check out the ownership of most major media in the US and Canada, and see how many times they are taking a stab at competitors of other companies that their ultimate owners control. If this is as big a deal as Mr. Arrington suggests, the Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent should be considered a field manual to endless lawsuits against not only Condé Nast but also CBS, NBC, ABC, CanWest Global, etc. etc. etc.

But perhaps I took the words too seriously – perhaps he was just using the words “sue” and “fraud” figuratively or to illustrate his point. Or perhaps, given the more litigious nature of the US, and the somewhat kindler, gentler, less punitive (as in damages) environment in Canada, there is actually a basis for Digg suing the heck out of Wired.

Bit of a tempest in a teapot, I think…

And of course in the interest of full disclosure, I am a subscriber to Wired, and also hope someday to see one tiny link from their site to this little blog.

Kinderstart v. Google

Speaking of litigation, here’s another one, albeit rather old news. The short version: Kinderstart, a web startup focused on children, decides to sue Google because its PageRank drops when Google decides to fine tune its PageRank algorithms. PageRank, btw, is what determines where your site shows up in search results when someone searches on key terms in Google. So when your PageRank drops, less people see the link to your site, less people find your site, and therefore your traffic and revenue go down.

Because of this, they sued Google for damages and also sought an injunction to require Google to reveal their proprietary PageRank algorithms (which of course Google closely guards as a trade secret.

As with the Culligan case, yes, well written decision, etc. etc., and I understand the logic and all that, but there’s a little part of me that wishes that the court could have written a judgement like this:

Kinderstart, this is Google. Google is a separate business from yours. They don’t owe you a living. So, in response to your claim, the answer is no. Now go away.

Tip o’ the hat to the Stella Awards for mentioning this in their listserv. Highly recommended for their take on US litigation.