Yesterday, while the management of eToys was faxing, calling, and emailing the media to get its story out, its legal team had sent a very different message. You probably saw our pointer to the Wired story which claimed the toy company had "given up." No such luck. The story behind the scenes was a little different. Click for more.
It's one thing to drop a lawsuit. It's another to "move away" from it. According to Chris Truax, the lawyer for the Etoy art group, which version the media heard depended on what time they were in touch with the eToys management. The initial version, he claims, was that eToys was dropping the suit. A later version was that they were "backing away" from the suit. A third version reassured the press that a precondition specified in the legal document was never intended to be a demand - only a request.
The problem was that eToys.legal was not working from the same playbook as eToys.PR. The precondition, clearly a showstopper, also calls into question whether the giant toy firm has a clue about what is really at stake.
That precondition was:
"to give good faith consideration, as our neighbor on the Internet, to concentrating the profanity, nudity and violence that is sometimes part of the etoy corporation message on etoy corporation's other websites."
Asking artists to censor their work, of course, flies like a lead wheelbarrow. At the same time the company spokesman was saying "our intent was never to silence free artistic expression," their legal team was doing precisely that. The entire short letter in which this request was made was focused on finding a resolution to the perceived problem of "profanity, nudity, and violence," and concluded by noting that co-existence was possible if "etoy corporation will respond favorably to this proposal."
The later Wired story quotes eToys management as putting this spin on it:
"This is a simple, straightforward, good-faith effort on our part to resolve this matter. We are asking that they make good-faith efforts to put some of the material that kids and parents might find offensive on another part of the site."
They can repeat the words "good faith" all they like, but that doesn't make this any less censorship. Imagine operating as an artist, knowing that for the rest of your tenure with the Etoy art group you must work very carefully not to put material inappropriate for children too close to your homepage. One use of the F-word already led to this lawsuit; how hair-trigger would the lawyers be the second time around? You'd want to tone down your message, lest you be accused of working in "bad faith."
But maybe this letter was just badly worded; perhaps there was a miscommunication somewhere between the PR and the legal departments.
Or, maybe this whole episode was a cynical attempt to calm down the activist community and get the story out of the public eye.
Think about what eToys is really saying. They have cost the art group a fair amount of money in legal bills and have shut down their website for (to date) a month. Now they say they want to walk away as long as Etoy does the same.
If someone came onto your property, stole your computer - and then a month later, after you'd spent thousands of dollars trying to get it back, offered to return it on the condition that you promised not to sue - would you be inclined to accept that condition?
How would you feel if they asked you to make a "good-faith effort" not to use your computer to write any "profanity"?
Chris Truax stopped short of saying whether Etoy would or would not continue their defensive countersuit if eToys' original suit were dropped, saying only "if the suit is dropped unilaterally, that's a very positive step." In my talks with him, he has seemed committed to finding a way to settle this matter without resorting to a knock-down, drag-out court battle, and he has said he'd like to help eToys management to educate themselves about being good netizens.
But he also pointed out several times that "the devil is in the details." And, of course, he's right. This whole mess won't be over until it's over.
It's a shame that the courts are still seeing issues like these at the end of 1999; those in positions of power should have learned about being good netizens by now. Etoy's story isn't all that unusual. While the art group has been under fire, there have been simultaneous attacks on the scholarly arts organization Leonardo and a computer club which happens to share the same initials as the BBC. Stay tuned.