An Open Letter to Craig Newmark

July 2, 2013

Dear Craig Newmark,

I’ve been following your work since the mid 90s and over the years you’ve been a role model, not only to me but to countless others trying to carve a path through the wilds of the Internet with some integrity. Thank you.

While jumping on the whistle-blowing bandwagon is certainly not my intent, I think you should know—if you don’t already—that your main man, Jim Buckmaster (Craigslist CEO) and his legal cronies over at Perkins Coie have definitely crossed your much vaunted “doing well by doing good” bottom line.

The Backstory

On February 25, 2013, my company received a Cease and Desist letter from Perkins Coie, Craigslist’s infamous legal counsel, demanding that we permanently disable our Krrb It button. They made their request crystal clear:

By this letter, we DEMAND that you IMMEDIATELY CEASE AND DESIST your abuse of Craigslist and all violations of Craigslist’s legal rights.

This “demand” was made without explaining how Krrb was harming Craigslist:

Your conduct violates a multitude of laws, including but not limited to breach of Craigslist’s Terms of Use (“TOU”).

As I read this threatening letter, my feelings were a mixture of fear, excitement and confusion. Fear, of course, because nobody wants to be sued by an Internet giant; excitement because Craigslist had taken notice of my fledgling start-up; confusion because I simply didn’t know how we could be “violating a multitude of laws” given the nature of our Krrb It button.

Our Krrb It button is a simple tool commonly known as a “bookmarklet” similar to the ones used by websites such as Pinterest, Svpply, Fancy and others. Once installed, the Krrb It button enables a registered user of Krrb to copy FACTUAL information from their OWN Craigslist posts to Krrb, using publicly available information, and displayed in a way that is unique to Krrb.

Now let me be super clear on a few key points:

  1. Krrb itself does not copy posts from Craigslist but rather individual users copy certain “factual” information from their own Craigslist posts;
  2. Krrb is neither “scraping” nor “crawling” Craigslist but rather individual users are using their own content on Craigslist to also post elsewhere;
  3. Krrb is not itself visiting Craigslist’s website, infiltrating Craigslist’s website, aggregating or spidering on Craigslist’s website, “auto-posting,” or engaging in any fraudulent activities in connection with Craigslist or its listings;
  4. Craigslist does not incur damages due to the Krrb It button as it does not deprive Craigslist of the fees paid by users for their posts.

Why then is Krrb being targeted? Craigslist has accused Krrb of inducing Craigslist users to violate Craigslist terms of use via our Krrb It button. They claim that their users do not have the right to copy a post from their website. In doing so, the user may be subject of up to a $25,000 fine.

Craig, are you aware of this? More importantly, are Craigslist users aware of this limitation imposed on their rights? This type of provision raises questions of IP law, Constitutional law, public policy and potential adverse consequences to Internet law. Further it explores the attempt by large corporations to own you and what you own.

Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, “Craigslist has veered from the path to a free and open Internet into a dark passage of walls, locks, and criminal prosecutions. We should not have a future in which (website) terms of use can be used to put people in jail, nor a future in which websites own the content posted by the users. We don’t want a future where Craigslist can sue you for distributing your own band flyer by hand, just because you posted it on Craigslist.”

Our attorney tried to have a substantive legal discussion with the Craigslist legal team to get answers and find an amicable resolution, but it went nowhere. They reiterated that unless we complied with their demand they would pursue “additional legal remedies.”

The definitive nature of this response implied that Craigslist would destroy Krrb using the burden of a drawn-out lawsuit that we could not afford. Therefore, under the threat of litigation from Craigslist and with no admission of liability, Krrb has reluctantly elected to dismantle our Krrb It button as it applies to Craigslist.

Litigious Cyber-Bullying

Krrb, of course, is far from alone. Craigslist is notorious for being extremely litigious, sending out Cease and Desist letters to startups and engaging in high-profile lawsuits against companies such as Padmapper and 3Taps.

If you do a search for “Craigslist Cease and Desist” you will find that, as New York Times’ columnist Nick Bilton has written, “The Internet is littered with digital carcasses that once built on top of the listings site.

Craig, I appreciate your defense of Craigslist’s actions when you said, "Actually, we take issue only with services which consume a lot of bandwidth, it’s that simple." However this doesn’t add up. We are neither visiting Craigslist nor consuming any of its bandwidth.

So really, as someone who has been at the forefront of so much good online policy, I ask you, given the potential adverse consequences to Internet law from its litigation, how do you personally justify Craigslist initiating so many lawsuits?

Our theory? We are convinced that Craigslist is engaging in anticompetitive business practices by using the pretext of breach of contract as a way to divest a copyright holder of his or her exclusive rights of copyright. In blocking users from promoting their own posts on any other website, Craigslist is attempting to weaken its competitors and maintain its dominance.

As Forbes writes, “Craigslist’s latest moves show it cares more about its market position than delivering value to its users.

Craigslist as a Public Good

I’ve always respected the fact that Craigslist has a .org domain because “it symbolizes the relatively non-commercial nature, public service mission, and non-corporate culture of Craigslist.” In the early days, when Craigslist was gaining in popularity you remarkably turned down every offer to be purchased, noting that Craigslist was a public good. Bravo!

In economics, a “public good” is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous in that individuals cannot be effectively excluded from use and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others. Examples of public goods include fresh air, knowledge, street lighting and the Internet.

But times have changed and Craigslist now acts more like a giant corporate bully than an ethical organization working towards public good. It’s your right to do with the Craigslist image as you see fit; however, I would hope that you would at least be transparent and not conceal your motivations of corporate dominance with a do-gooder cloak.

It is high time that you drop the peace sign logo, move your domain from .org to .com and curb all the talk about doing good – I believe that it is no longer accurate and therefore is a misrepresentation of Craigslist’s ethos.

In Conclusion

Craig, if you wish to continue defining Craigslist as a public good, then things must change. Craigslist should renounce its stranglehold on its users’ content, embrace the free flow of public data and abandon the expensive legal actions against fledgling startups such as Krrb.

Collaboration is fundamental to the Internet’s growth and wellbeing. Let’s work together, as you boldly state on your website, to “give voice to the voiceless and real power to the powerless” by “giving all people access to technology” and enabling the free-flow of publicly available information.

Kind regards,

George Eid