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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
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Start-Up Claims Yelp! Tried to Extort it

HOUSTON (CN) - A software developer claims Yelp! tried to "extort" $100,000 from it by accusing it of using "web crawling and data extraction technology" to repackage publicly available data from yelp.com and sell it to businesses.

Computational Crawling sued Yelp!, which runs a social networking website, in Federal Court.

Texas-based Computational Crawling claims it developed and marketed a customizable web-crawling product called "80legs."

"In addition to performing customized web crawling for its customers, 80legs sold 'crawl packages' from regularly crawled publicly-available sites that contained, for example, recompiled data on company listing, directories, and reviews," according to the complaint.

"On or about October 1, 2009, Computational Crawling began utilizing 80legs to crawl Yelp!'s publicly available web sites. Such crawls are routinely performed on Yelp! sites by other web crawlers, e.g. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other anonymous web crawlers.

"Similar to its behavior with other crawlers, Yelp! failed to use customary and standard methods to block 80legs from crawling its sites. Such customary and standard methods include utilizing 'robots.txt.' strings to prevent specifically named web crawling 'agents' from accessing websites and data.

"Further, Yelp! did not require 80legs to actively consent to any Terms of Service ('TOS') prior to 80legs automated crawling of Yelp! web pages. Nor did 80legs, an automated crawler, so consent."

Computational Crawling says it started creating "crawl packages that contained publicly available data from Yelp!" in July 2010.

Yelp.com lets people post anonymous business reviews on its website.

In explaining its 80legs product, Computational Crawling says: "One reason for the creation of such crawl packages was based on customer requests for the large amount of unsolicited 'customer' reviews of thousands of businesses on Yelp!. Thus, the 80leg 'Yelp!' crawl packages served to efficiently and fairly apprise the public, including businesses, of what was being said about them.

"This protects the public's identity and reputation. This positive use of crawl packages is important as Yelp! itself does not notify businesses about reviews, including inaccurate or negative reviews, because Yelp! has been accused (sued) regarding 'extorting' such businesses by demanding payment from businesses in order to protect its identity and reputation by removing inaccurate or defamatory reviews." (Parentheses in original.)

Computational Crawling says Yelp! attorney Aaron Schur contacted it in November 2011 and demanded that it "cease and desist from crawling Yelp!"

Computational Crawling says it immediately complied.

But it adds: "On January 17, 2012, Aaron Schur demanded 'settlement' from Computational Crawling regarding the '80legs.com' matter. Mr. Schur couched this letter in terms of resolving 'our' ongoing dispute, and then alleged in the letter that the dispute was over 80legs.com's supposed 'unlawful and unauthorized access, copying, and distribution of content' from Yelp! websites. ... These allegations are patently false.

"In the January 17, 2012 letter, Mr. Schur also demanded one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) from Computational Crawling." (Parentheses in original)

Schur is not a party to the complaint, whose only defendant is Yelp! Inc.

Computational Crawling adds: "Far from any real 'resolution' or negotiation regarding this 'dispute,' Mr. Schur simply demanded that Computational Crawling pay $100,000 to Yelp! despite the fact that the 80legs crawls and crawl packages were (1) performed no differently than via other web crawling companies, (2) completed because Yelp! did not utilize the full extent of industry standard or customary methodology to prevent such crawling, (3) withdrawn immediately on notice from Yelp! that, unlike others, 80legs must stop crawling Yelp!.

"In short, Mr. Schur demanded $100,000.00 from a small start-up company that did nothing wrong.

"80legs' crawling and packaging of Yelp! did not violate any statutory or common law, and in fact it was Yelp! that first requested that 80legs potentially violate state and federal privacy laws regarding 80legs' customer identity and data."

Computational Crawling says Schur's January 17 letter "explicitly threatens litigation should Computational Crawling not pay Yelp! $100,000. While this may be pocket change to a multimillion-dollar company such as Yelp!, this amount is unconscionable and untenable (especially given the baseless accusations behind the demand) to a small start-up like Computational Crawling.

"Yelp!'s assertions of wrongdoing adversely affected Computational Crawling and will continue to adversely affect 80legs until this court makes a determination of Computational Crawling's and 80legs' absolute right to gather and collate publicly available data without fear of unfounded but serious monetary and legal repercussions. Start-up companies like Computational Crawling have little to no profitability. Such start-ups struggle just to pay every day operating expenses. Start-ups such as Computational Computing are destroyed via actions such as any payment of Yelp!'s inappropriate extortion demand (let alone $100,000) or unfounded lawsuit by Yelp!" (Parentheses in original.)

Computational Crawling seeks a declaration that it "did not violate any of Yelp!'s rights, or any state or federal law or common law regarding unlawful and unauthorized access, copying, and distribution of content from Yelp! websites."

Computational Crawling CEO Shion Deysarkar filed the complaint pro se. A chain of emails attached as exhibits, however, indicates that the company does have an attorney.

San Francisco-based Yelp! has 150 employees, and had an estimated 2009 revenue of $30 million.

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