Internet Archive V. Shell: The Publicity Aftermath

    March 19, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

After news of Suzanne Shell’s countersuit against Internet Archive surviving by the thread of one non-dismissed claim – the claim that Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine web crawler was guilty of breach of contract by ignoring the site’s terms of use – hit the cyber circuit, a real catfight hissed and scratched its way across the weekend.

You might call it a "flame war," in the traditional Internet sense, but that’s hardly accurate.

Besides the ensuing vitriol, the interesting twists the case puts on Internet copyright law, and the implications of what happens as a result of the case, at the end of the day there are incredible juxtapositions afoot. Specifically, a child has issued a challenge to a woman dedicated to protecting the rights of accused child abusers.

Though one may be hesitant to readily accept Shell’s cause – both her countersuit and her response to the "Internet Geeks" lambasting her toe the line of the extreme by demanding punishment of Internet Archive beyond, by some standards, what might be considered reasonable, and by use of what may be considered extensive abusive language in her FAQ (PDF) about the case – Shell manages to effectively illustrate the shortcomings of cyber-mobs unable to channel their anger into intelligible language carrying anything that might be called "gravitas."

Yes, we’ve certainly addressed the "weight-class," if you will, of the average user, and we generally didn’t like what we found out.

Let’s review and clarify. When Shell discovered that Internet Archive had copied and displayed 87 versions of her website,, she demanded the company pay $100,000 in licensing fees, according to John Ottaviani. Shell has a notice on her site announcing that copying pages from the site carried some pretty stiff fees. Internet Archive’s crawler copied the site for use on the Wayback Machine, an act Shell says is agreeing to the contract. There is some precedent for machines entering contracts, which makes this case all the more interesting.

Internet Archive refused to pay the licensing fees and sued Shell in a Colorado court seeking judgment that no violation of copyrights had occurred. Shell countersued, alleging copyright infringement, conversion, civil theft, breach of contract, along with federal and state-level racketeering. All but the breach of contract claim have been dismissed.

Shell is quick to note in this aftermath, that her case is not about the legitimacy of search engine spidering, but about copying and displaying. She defends Google’s and other engines’ fair use of Internet content for indexing purposes.

The story really came to light last Friday, though the case has been pending for nearly a year and a half. After that, a mob of so-called "iGeeks" began shooting off emails to Shell with threats of hacking her site, calling her a "moron," a "stupid whore," a "retard," and calling her lawsuit "a joke." Most of these emails were sent anonymously, Shell points out, climaxing with a threat to murder and sodomize Shell’s children. Shell has subsequently claimed, according, that she is tracing phone calls and plans to press charges.

Shell responds in vitriolic kind in an FAQ published on the site over the weekend, accusing anonymous emailers of being cowards, unintelligent, rude, macho, nasty, sick, scary, and abusive, in as many different terms as she (or the writer of the FAQ) can find.

And she makes a good case for it. Say what you want about the merits of her seemingly overly-punitive countersuit, or even the cause in life to which she is devoted, but the breach of contract claim is an important one to explore in a time of uncertain copyright limitations.

Those that would argue Internet Archive is within its rights to copy and preserve at will, that the "opt-out" standard is acceptable in this age of boundless information, would be better served if their anonymous emails, if they must remain anonymous, had some sort of bite beyond petty, immature, misspelled, informal, and uncalled-for abuse.

Flaming, on the Internet and in life, just doesn’t win an opponent to your cause. Perhaps part of this is due to the orbitofrontal cortex, the brain’s regulatory center for appropriate speech that takes facial and body language cues to control what comes out of the amygdala, or the nastiness center. Anonymity coupled with lack of empathy-inspiring cues from the other side cause this process to halt, according to some researchers.

But it may speak more about an online culture more acutely coming into conflict with the real world, and a youthful base, that hasn’t developed certain communication skills and judgment yet, suddenly gripping a powerful vehicle for speech.

And that brings us around to Jeff Veillette. Veillette is a 15-year-old Canadian, judging from profiles on the Net, a user, and self-insulting* online community member with what you might call typical 15-year-old rhetoric. Publicizing his actions on Digg, Veillette is daring Shell to sue him after setting up, a complete copy of Shell’s website, which would, if the terms were agreed to, rack up fees beyond counting.

At the top of the site, Veillette issues this statement:

Listen. Don’t fuck with us. We fight back, Suzanne. Try and sue me. I DARE you. Your entire site is framed here. Not one file (not two, but all) being processed is done by you. I framed it all, Suzanne. And you can’t do anything. Come on, Suzanne, go for it.

NOTE: Heh! I actually wasn’t stealing anything. Just frames. But it proves a point. We don’t like you, Suzanne. Someone will try this, but at 15 years old I can’t afford it if you go insane. Sorry. Maybe next time.

And now, we sit back, shake our heads at both sides, and watch what happens next between a sharp-tongued, heavy-handed mother and the exceedingly arrogant bravado of a teenager. And we watch nervously.   

*CORRECTION: Veillette informs us that the "self-insulting" post was a prank by a friend of his and not actually him.