Links, Lawsuits and Privacy in the Age of Real Estate 2.0

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In an important case for bloggers and real estate sites in general, real estate aggregator Blockshopper got its hand slapped heavily this week for doing what many of us do… that is, publishing and linking to publicly available sources on the Internet.

blockshopper

Blockshopper, a site that was launched in 2006, was built to aggregate real estate data in a number of metro cities around the country. One of the main features on the site is a daily news summary of real estate transactions each city. (Italian anesthesiologist drops $1.3M in Riverdale is an example of one of their stories.)

But this practice apparently raised the ire of a local law firm. Writer Wendy Davis brings the issue to light in an article on Slate Magazine.

BlockShopper was following standard operating procedure by linking to publicly available Web sites. But Jones Day got mad. The law firm (a big one, at 2,300 lawyers) has never publicly said why it sued; maybe the powers that be there thought the posts compromised their lawyers’ privacy. Housing records are public documents, but the Web turns public into accessible, and the firm presumably wasn’t thrilled about having its attorneys’ home purchases broadcast. Jones Day demanded that BlockShopper remove the items. When BlockShopper refused, the firm sued the 15-staff startup for trademark infringement. Jones Day’s legal theory was that BlockShopper’s link would trick readers into thinking that Jones Day was affiliated with the real estate site.

On the surface, the allegations of trademark infringement seem dismissable. But unfortunately, the judge in the case didn’t seem to agree and allowed the case to continue.

So rather than pursue a costly court battle, and having already spent six figures in its own defense, Blockshopper settled out of court this week and agreed to a cumbersome URL structure when linking to the law firm’s attorneys (i.e. not using the firm’s name in the anchor text).

Writer Davis argues the ramifications of this case mean companies may, in future, seize the opportunity to dictate to web publishers how and what they can link to. That is a truly frightening prospect.

But I also think the heart of the issue is ultimately the sphere of privacy that surrounds where people live. That notion which has largely been turned on its head in Real Estate 2.0 (see “Transparency” hits home).

Blockshopper’s practice of blogging individual’s purchases may have offended the attorneys in the law firm. But really, is it much different from Zillow publishing a Zestimate or Google providing a Street View of that same home. They are all pulling from sources that are ultimately in the public domain.

Google itself has stated that “satellite-image technology means that…complete privacy does not exist,” and today won a privacy suit based on that principle. Indeed, it seems not even the US military is immune from this new world.

Clearly we’re still stumbling through this new era of transparency and some people don’t like what’s happening. I don’t have all the answers to this issue, I just hope, when all’s said and done, it’s not the lawyers who end up telling us what can and can not be published.

(h/t 360Digest)