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Cosmic Variance
By John Conway
Mar 19, 2007 6:15 AMNov 5, 2019 8:11 AM


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A very interesting lawsuit was handed a very interesting judgment the other day in Colorado, in the case of a woman, Suzanne Shell, who filed suit against an internet search engine spider which "crawled" her site, indexing, as these spiders do, its contents. As discussed over at Information Week, the suit alleges everything from breaking and entering, theft, racketeering, and breach of contract. It all got thrown out of court, except the breach of contract part. Huh? Well, she has a warning on her site, profanejustice.org that entering it and clicking on links etc. constitutes acceptance of her terms of service, which include not indexing it or downloading the contents, etc. You get the idea. She sounds like something of a s**t diturber, anyway, refusing at one point to surrender a .38 in her carry-on, etc. Don't get me wrong, I am gaining growing respect for the disturbers out there in this strange world. But, you know, pick your battles. But to the issue: *do* internet search sites have the right, no matter what, to index you and send readers your way? Or index you and use the information for something else? Is it a bad thing to respect someone's declared intent for you to not do that? I think the whole argument about whether computer programs or agents or spiders or whatever are sentient is stupid. They are not, but someone hit that return key somewhere, and they are the ones responsible. There is an informal agreement that robots should obey the restrictions in a robots.txt file on a site, but it's no more than that, an informal agreement. So that's not a good argument against the suit. What happens if she wins this one all the way? Then, any time a site wanted to avoid being indexed, they could simply declare this on the page. The vagaries of our language being what they are, it would be hard to program a robot to be sensitive to any such disclaimers anywhere on a page. But, supposing that can be overcome, what uses might this be put to? I suppose those might include online stores that don't want their prices advertised elsewhere, because they are so high! It also might make it easier to protect copyrighted material. It certainly would put something of a damper, in the end, on the open and free nature of the web. But perhaps our diligent readers can think of other evil to do with such a new restriction.

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