Data harvester 3taps is countersuing Craigslist to save the internet. Believe it or not, that just might not be an overstatement.
“Craiglist was an innovator at one time,” says 3taps chief executive Greg Kidd. “But time has moved on, and the concept of what the open web is today has evolved.”
Craiglist, the massive online classifieds site where the internet is still 1997, has had a wildly tumultuous 2012.
In June Craigslist blocked a third-party service, PadMapper, from scraping its apartment rental listings and presenting them in a more 2012 way. Then in July, when PadMapper found a “legally kosher” way to access Craigslist postings via 3taps (which essentially sucked the data right out of Google), Craiglist sued PadMapper and 3taps … and then bizarrely amended its terms of service, telling users they were not permitted to cross-post their sales items anywhere else on the internet.
Effectively, Craigslist was claiming complete and total copyright of its users’ content.
That died its inevitable death in early August, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation — on whose advisory board Craigslist founder Craig Newmark sits — got involved. Since that strategy failed, Craiglist went thermonuclear on all content scrapers, blocking all search engines from accessing the site.
At which point, you might think, it would just be easier to play nicely with others. But the core question remains: Who owns the data in Craigslist listings?
“Public facts are public property,” says Kidd, who is also an advisor at Square and was a first-round investor in Twitter. “Our view is that facts are protected by the First Amendment.”
Facts, of course, are not copyrightable, at least according the U.S. Supreme Court. That means no one can copyright the fact that Hitler lost World War II, or that you’ve got a slightly-used sofa for sale for just $299, no tax, no refunds.
And if that’s the case, says Kidd, how can Craigslist “own” its users’ listings? Kidd cites James Boyle from the Center for Public Domain at Duke University, who says that a Craigslist-style view on facts and copyright would “break the internet.” And not just 3taps, either. Giants like Google would also be affected.
“People seem to feel that scraping is a bad word,” says Kidd, referring to the often ethically controversial practice of electronically capturing data on other organizations’ websites. “But Google’s whole model is based on scraping.”
He doesn’t see any law, Kidd told me, that says Google can do it but no one else. And he has a real problem with Craigslist deciding who is a search engine and who isn’t.
So 3taps is suing Craigslist to force the courts to define what is public and what is private, and what can be copyrighted. In addition, 3taps will be suing Craigslist under the Sherman Antitrust Act, claiming that Craigslist is a monopoly acting in monopolistic ways to reduce competition in the marketplace.
“You can bully people that aren’t well-resourced,” says Kidd. “But that only works until it doesn’t work.”
He’s had no contact with Craigslist — and, despite repeated requests on this occasion and others, Craigslist has not responded to VentureBeat’s attempts to get its perspective — saying it refuses to talk to anyone.
“I don’t know what goes on in their heads,” Kidd told me. “I just wish they’d stop suing everyone else.”