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November 24th, 2017

Insight

How Zillow Became an Internet Villain --- and why it matters

Megan McArdle

By Megan McArdle Bloomberg View

Published July 5, 2017

How Zillow Became an Internet Villain --- and why it matters

I've now been writing for the web for 16 years, and yet, I am still capable of wonder at the vast opportunities this technology offers to make a fool of yourself.


In the old days, fools were made on a local, artisanal basis, strictly for the entertainment of the neighbors. Now, thanks to the miracle of electronic communications, with a few keystrokes, we can become fools to the world.


Take Zillow, for example.


The real estate site noticed that McMansion Hell, a blog specializing in acerbic architectural commentary on modern developments, seemed to be using some Zillow images. Zillow didn't like this; Zillow makes money by helping agents sell houses, not helping bloggers make fun of them. So Zillow sent a cease-and-desist letter to Kate Wagner, who runs the site, ordering her to take down the photos.


Wagner took the site down. She also took to Twitter to beg for help.

In short order, she had a lawyer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and also, a wave of social media outrage at her plight. That wave crashed over Zillow, whose apologists had to shamefacedly explain that they had not intended to force her to shutter McMansion Hell.


Now I am not a lawyer. But people who are lawyers specializing in First Amendment jurisprudence seem to think that Zillow hasn't a legal leg to stand on.


While copyright does prevent people from simply reprinting images or words that another person has created, there are exceptions for "fair use," including for the purposes of parody or commentary.


Fair use is not an unlimited right to copy, but it seems pretty clear that making fun of the houses on Zillow falls within those limitations.


But even if the law had been behind them, Zillow would have been wise to refrain. That's because the internet creates something known as the "Streisand Effect."


In 2003, Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress publication of photographs of her Malibu beach home. Prior to this ill-fated effort to disappear them, almost no one had been aware that these photographs existed. Afterwards, everyone knew -- and looked.

McMansion Hell was certainly a popular site. I myself have spent some happy hours marveling at the things people will do to their homes, when they are given more money than sense. But it's safe to say that many thousands of people who had previously been unaware of its existence are now going to view those images. They are also going to view Zillow as a nasty, mean-spirited company that attempted to crush a smaller website that committed no crime, and gave many of us a much-needed laugh.


This is hardly the first time this dynamic has played out. So why does it keep happening so often?


Well, in part because people make mistakes. But also, I think, because too many corporations, even internet companies, haven't internalized the realities of this new world. The same technology that enables them to garner millions of eyeballs for their content also empowers smaller fry, who can turn those eyeballs against them if they put a foot wrong.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy. She is the author of "The Up Side of Down." McArdle previously wrote for Newsweek-the Daily Beast, the Atlantic and the Economist.

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