Tuesday, July 31, 2012

BlockShopper: Bona Fide News Reporting or an Invasion of Privacy?

Example of a BlockShopper "Local Real Estate News Story" from St. Louis
Beginning in 2011, law firms Gioconda Law Group PLLC and Balestriere Fariello began an in-depth investigation into BlockShopper LLC.  Collectively, we reviewed hundreds of pages of public documents, collected news articles, read blogs and newsgroups, printed out screenshots and researched applicable federal state and local laws.  The following represents a summary of our findings.  We have not been compensated by anyone for our investigation, nor have we included or considered any privileged or confidential communications in this discussion.  The following is presented solely for the public’s interest in this matter.

BlockShopper LLC owns and operates an interactive Internet website that was co-founded in 2006 by Brian Timpone, a brash one-time Chicago TV reporter turned entrepreneur.  The Chicago Tribune recently reported that the 39-year-old co-founder’s latest gambit Journatic LLC struck a deal in April of this year in which the Tribune Co. agreed to invest an undisclosed amount in his 6-year-old media content provider.  But less than three months later, the Chicago Tribune reports that the partnership has become an embarrassment after ethical breaches, including false bylines, plagiarism and fake quotations, were discovered.

The BlockShopper website has also been plagued by public criticism and even an intellectual property infringement lawsuit brought by a major law firm.  For those unfamiliar with the website, they may be shocked to discover that it offers an aggregate of detailed personal information about individuals, including their names, spouses’ and children’s names, street addresses, details of their residential real estate transactions including property taxes paid, home values, photographs of their home and/or neighborhood, maps and directions to their home, educational background, employer(s), and even photographs.  Some have characterized it as a stalker's dream come true, where personal information is gathered from multiple sources and presented in a comprehensive format.  Identity thieves might also find such helpful information handy.

BlockShopper has also displayed photographs that it has reproduced and copied from personal and business websites, seemingly without the prior authorization, permission or consent of the photographers’ and/or of the individuals depicted in many of the photographs.  BlockShopper has even copied and displayed images of individuals taken from their personal profiles on popular social networking sites such as Facebook®, MySpace® and LinkedIn®, seemingly without the prior approval or permission of those individuals or companies.

The BlockShopper website is profit-driven, although it styles itself as a “local real estate news” reporting tool and does not charge for general access.  Despite its controversial nature (or perhaps in part because of it), the BlockShopper website receives nearly 1 million hits per month.  BlockShopper uses this substantial traffic to woo advertisers and real estate agents, bragging that it is currently operating in many geographic markets across the United States, and that its audience and reach is rapidly growing.

However, not everyone whose information and images are displayed on BlockShopper becomes a fan of the unexpected notoriety.  Indeed, Timpone was personally named in a lawsuit brought by Jones Day, a large national law firm in Cleveland, Ohio for his conduct, but he chose to settle and remove numerous images of that law firm’s attorneys to avoid the expense of further litigation.  To settle that case, BlockShopper’s management team agreed that “it will not use photographs appearing on the Jones Day website without the prior written approval of Jones Day.”

But news articles reported that the Jones Day lawsuit had no meaningful long-term effect on addressing BlockShopper’s overall approach: “The Jones Day lawsuit is not slowing the [BlockShopper] site down from expanding into new markets.  Last weekend, BlockShopper launched in three new cities--Cleveland, Washington, and Phoenix.  That’s on top of the company's recent expansion into Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and additional neighborhoods in Illinois.”  Since then, BlockShopper covers even more geographic areas.


Numerous blogs, including StopBlockShopperNow.com and "BOOM" (the "BlockShopper Opt Out Movement"), Facebook pages and public newsgroups have sprung up, reporting that hundreds of individuals have repeatedly complained to BlockShopper and unsuccessfully demanded that their personal information be removed from the website. Complaints have flooded consumer complaint boards, and State Attorney Generals’ offices have gotten involved. BlockShopper has even received complaints about dangerous individuals viewing the aggregated personal information that BlockShopper provides, in order to violate restraining orders.

Specific law enforcement-related complaints seem to have forced BlockShopper to remove at least some listings.  But in many cases, Blockshopper has received numerous, repeated complaints from individuals demanding that their personal information be removed from the website, but adamantly refuses to remove such placement, claiming that its conduct is fully protected by the freedom of speech and of the press.  


The BlockShopper website defends its stance in its“Frequently Asked Questions” section:
Public records are public for a reason. That is, your name isn’t on the title of the property you own—for all to see—to facilitate neighbor nosiness but because it is in the collective public interest. The most important charge of a local government is to guarantee land title; to keep accurate, timely records of who owns what. If we couldn’t learn the “who,” uncertainty would reign and land transactions would slow to a crawl. This would be bad for everyone’s house value. Furthermore, the prices we pay for our homes are public as they serve as the basis for local property taxes. Keeping this information like a secret would result in a lucky few paying too little, while the rest of us pay too much. In the spirit of fairness, we report public records as they are reported to us. We do not eliminate records on BlockShopper.com, as doing so compromises the integrity of our data.
But BlockShopper goes even further than just reporting real estate data, like Zillow.com does.  BlockShopper’s display has included hundreds of photographs taken wholesale from hospitals’ and physicians’ websites, colleges and universities’ sites, small businesses’ sites as well as directly from private individuals’ websites.

160+ Complaints and Negative Reviews of BlockShopper Appear on ConsumerAffairs.com
These people are not what the law would traditionally deem “public figures.”  In fact, BlockShopper has mostly appropriated images of otherwise private individuals such as secretaries, librarians, computer programmers, graphic designers, accountants, teachers, physicians, dentists, engineers, architects and photographers and others.  


Therefore, the core legal question presented by the BlockShopper model is whether the copying, reproduction and display of aggregated information about private individuals alongside their headshots are activities that constitute bona fide “news reporting” about real estate transactions that are protected by the First Amendment, or are really just an invasion of privacy cloaked in the guise of news.

For better or worse, from a precedential standpoint, BlockShopper may have the better of the legal argument when it comes to the legal standard of “newsworthiness.”  In the geographic markets where BlockShopper collects its data, the county clerks’ offices, the privacy statutes and the courts have consistently stated that the test for “news reporting” is liberally applied.  See, e.g., Illinois law (1075/§ 35 (b) (right to control one’s identity does not apply to “non-commercial purposes including any news, public affairs…”); see also Messenger ex rel. Messenger v. Gruner + Jahr Printing and Pub, 94 N.Y.2d 436, 727 N.E.2d 549 (New York Ct. of Appeals, 2000) (“where a plaintiff's picture is used to illustrate an article on a matter of public interest, there can be no liability … unless the picture has no real relationship to the article or the article is an advertisement in disguise”; Maheu v. CBS, 201 Cal. App. 3d 662, 675 (1988) (“even a tortious invasion of privacy is exempt from liability if the publication of private facts is truthful and newsworthy.”).


Nonetheless, many individuals and commentators have voiced concerns that a public policy that permits unrestricted and widespread conduct of the sort engaged in by BlockShopper would result in a substantially adverse impact on the actual and/or potential marketplace – but marketplace for what? 


Because the discrete information that BlockShopper aggregates is generally available from county clerk’s offices anyway, and Internet-posted headshots are not usually offered “for sale,” it is not clear what exact “marketplace” is being negatively affected.

In a broader sense, one could argue that BlockShopper’s unauthorized appropriation of images and information from social networking sites may serve to deter private individuals from engaging in socially productive interaction on the Internet.  In fact, Brian Timpone warned the public to this negative impact in a news interview:  If you don’t want to be on BlockShopper,don’t promote yourself on the Web.”  

But private individuals and copyright holders making images of themselves visible on the World Wide Web could theoretically argue that they have not legally consented to BlockShopper’s appropriation of those images for BlockShopper’s commercial gain.  

Therefore, there is at most an unresolved legal question as to whether BlockShopper’s display of headshots is a legally-permissible “fair use” of those particular images in connection with bona fide news reporting about those individuals.

Finally, many individuals sincerely believe that BlockShopper’s conduct violates their individual right to privacy.  However, they may be surprised to discover that laws regarding the privacy of truthful facts are not as restrictive as one might think.  If BlockShopper has accomplished nothing else, it has contributed to a collective legislative push by some to get real estate data privacy laws toughened up at the county and local levels.

In conclusion, the thorny legal issues surrounding BlockShopper’s website, and other identity aggregators like it, remain mostly unresolved at a national level.  Those who remain disturbed and disgusted by BlockShopper’s approach and question the bona fides of its “news reporting” may best be served writing their local legislators about making the data surrounding their local real estate transactions private.

17 comments:

  1. I am a radio dj, who has received death threats simply for not playing a request, and directions to my front door is available on this website. They even provide a map! I've contacted them several times and they refuse to remove my information. My local government won't get involved either. I can't tell you how helpless this makes me feel.

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  2. I totally agree with the comment above. I am a RN and I help to treat all kinds of people including very sick psych patients and prisoners. I wrote many times to Blockshopper explaining how dangerous this online information could be for my safety, but got the same answer that every gets, they told me that all their online information, is public records, and it was nothing that I could do.

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  3. Legally-speaking, if home ownership data is otherwise publicly-available at the county clerk's office, and all that BlockShopper or other data aggregators do is make it easier for the general public to access that information without having to physically visit each county clerk's office, that act does not clearly violate any reasonable expectation privacy or other intellectual property laws.

    The underlying problem, if there is one, lies at the local and county levels, which permit home ownership records to be freely accessible to the public. If there were legal restrictions on that data, then BlockShopper couldn't reveal it publicly.

    There is some similarity between this issue and MugShots.com.

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  4. I amongst others, received a letter from a Blockshopper attorney, threatening me with a libel suit if I continued to complain about them publicly. Eventually I was able to get most of my info changed, after a lengthy process of proving via legal docs that I had a stalker. IE- I had to release more private information to a firm that already uses info un-ethically. I can only hope they don't decide to take their approach further....

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  5. I find it horrifying that this issue with this same website exists all of these years later and they still haven't been shut down. I am a psychologist and while they list "psychiatric social worker" as an occupation they will remove info for, somehow someone with more education who works with the SAME POPULATIONS doesn't get the same treatment? I abhor these people.

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  6. Thank you very much, Patricia, for the informative article. Here's a sample letter you can write to anyone who advertises on Blockshopper. Below is a note addressed to a real estate agent in LA. Feel free to cut, paste, edit, and send.

    Hi Allison,
    I obtained your email address from Blockshopper.com., as you advertise
    your real estate services on their site.
    I'm a property owner in Los Angeles whose home address and property information is available on the internet, without my consent, thanks to Blockshopper.com.
    I have explained that I have asked Blockshopper.com to remove my information,
    as I work in the entertainment industry and have had privacy (stalker) issues in the past.
    They refused.
    I recently learned that there have been a multitude of complaints nationwide against this company. People with potentially violent ex-spouses, people like myself whose employment makes them a target, etc. Blockshoppers.com poses a risk to many people's safety and violates their privacy.
    I have friends, family, and colleagues in the Long Beach area. I am going to explain my experience with Blockshopper.com in detail and ask all of them specifically not to do business with you because you advertise on Blockshopper.com. Once they discover their
    personal information is also on the site, I'm sure they'll understand my request and relay
    the message to their friends and colleagues.
    I'm sure you can understand my position, and the position of other property owners who do not wish to have their personal information on the internet without their consent.
    There are many places online that you, as a real estate professional, can advertise.
    I would encourage you to consider your options.
    Kind regards,

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  7. I'm absolutely disturbed by BlockShopper.com's practices & their lack of concern about the personal safety of millions of people. Our laws need to be modified to prevent this type of use of "public records". I just think that there needs to be an opt-out policy like all of the other sites.

    Help!

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  8. How about this argument to try to stop them: they use search optimization techniques so that when a google search is done of a name, their article comes up about the person. They are making money off of people's names, which might be viewed as tortious misappropriation of another's name. Let them write their news articles, that is not the problem. It is the use of people's name in search optimization techniques to put the page at the top of an internet search. check out this article about the misappropriation tort: http://www.citmedialaw.org/legal-guide/using-name-or-likeness-another

    another possible line of attack: take on google. why does google let this dumb website rise so high in rankings? complain to them

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  9. How is a company allowed to use our public records and person information to make money? I know it is public records, but this is also the internet not the courthouse!
    This is their reply to an email I sent them:
    BlockShopper publishes public records. Property ownership and sales information is listed publicly in multiple places on the internet and in other publications. We get our data from the county-- it is the public record. It's our goal to be accurate and consistent, so we don't simply edit the public record on any request.

    Please refer to our FAQ page for more information.
    http://www.blockshopper.com/faq.html

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  10. Blockshopper must be stopped. They are way over the line. They take liberties with materiel that is far beyond public records.

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  11. True, real estate information is public, and can be viewed at the appropriate county records department, but only when submitting an address to be viewed.
    HOWEVER, it does not work in reverse. A stranger cannot walk into the records department, submit a person's name and be given their address automatically, just because he wants it.
    Yet Blockshopper does just that. A stranger/stalker submits a person's name and Blockshopper points them to the home of their target, complete with directions and photographs.
    The soul-less creatures at Blockshopper have no regard for potential victims. Their website should be taken down permanently.

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    Replies
    1. I will take your comment a step further. Dissemination of public access records have never been too much of an issue before the internet. But disseminating this information on the internet, to anyone who has web access? Aren't we trying to introduce privacy laws now? Having your name, address, map to your house, photographs, etc. should be something you opt into. I loathe these people.

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    2. Actually these people are the bottom feeders of society. My brother, sister and many cousins with the same last name are in law enforcement. My 80 year old mother recently got very ill and I sent a request to Scarlett at block shopper explaining that we have an very sick 80 year old woman who has kids and nephews who are cops. We added my name to the title of the house to avoid possible probate and bam, my sick mother shows up on Google with a map to her house! Scarlett is a made up name and the response was your typical we have the right to BS. It also came from India at 2AM. These people are something else and now we have to get a court order so my mother isn't in harms way. You can't deal with scumbags. The problem is they can't hide behind the law when you mess with law enforcement. As for them getting the info in the first place, I think the counties just sell it. My mother received 3 title junk snail mails before she actually received the new title. Buy a copy of your title for $100! This in part, is a problem on the county level. Then you have these block shopper scumbags who take the info and just put it on the internet. They Email you from India and give you the runaround. They are the only website who refused to take down my mothers info. Now my cousins who are CPD deliver a court order to them in person. Lets see how they handle that.

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  12. I guess the only way to keep your privacy is to never register to vote and always rent your home. A mobile home might be a better solution for some people, or you could have your home "owned" by a living trust for which you are the trustee. And your trust can't be named something obvious like "[My Name Here] Living Trust". I wonder if the owner, Timothy Landon, whose residence is at 2704 Bennett Evanston, Illinois has HIS information listed. Perhaps we should call him and ask. I think his phone number is (847) 332-2021. I wonder if he's worried about the safety of this daughter in such a precarious situation... http://www.mypublisher.com/?e=OHm3Q8zJl3RJoHhgWnIWtU35CJFogewf&s=fb - It would really be a shame if he were hoisted by his own petard.

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  13. How would like Brian Timpone information about himself? Blockshopper.com has wrong information about him. His address is 843 Keystone Ave, River Forest, Il 60305 The phone number should be 708 657 4044 His wife is Patricia A. Timpone (McNamara) Some people complained that they contacted with Blockshopper representative Scarlett and she was bully... It is the name one of Timpone's kids)
    Brian Timpone is a son of Leonard Timpone and Helen Timpone (Biancotto), has a sister Kara Cronan (Timpone) and brother Brian.

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  14. Public information about Leonard Timpone: http://law.justia.com/cases/illinois/supreme-court/2004/93178.html

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  15. Public information about Brett Timpone: http://patch.com/illinois/romeoville/bank-robbery-suspect-surrenders

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