Editor's note: This column has been updated to provide attribution to original sources.
Kate Wagner, a 23-year-old grad student in architectural acoustics is the owner of McMansion Hell, which "educate[s] people about architecture in an entertaining way." She mocks suburban homes by posting witty commentary on real estate listing photos.
Wagner's hilarious blog has been featured on Business Insider, The Independent, and Huffington Post. On Monday, June 26, she participated in a video for the Washington Post, in which she called out gaudy mansions as "pretentious" because they were designed primarily to advertise the owner's wealth. Wagner pointed out that many of these homes had non load-bearing columns, which were often made of foam. (Sometimes the free-standing foam-filled columns were even inside the house!)
On the same day that the video aired, Wagner, who hosts her blog on Tumbr, and says it generates only a modest income, received a cease-and-desist letter from Zillow, "the leading real estate and rental marketplace."
"The threat appears to be retaliation following Wagner's featuring in a Washington Post story that turned a sharp eye on the trend back to cheaply-constructed houses slathered in subprime financing, counterposing her criticism against a battery of smarmily self-promotional quotes from Zillow spokespeople," wrote Boing Boing.
"This blog has been my livelihood for a little under a year now, so receiving a notice like this is utterly terrifying," wrote Wagner in a statement she shared on Twitter. "If it goes, I lose absolutely everything." Her tweets "blew up on the net," according to EFF attorney Daniel Nazer and by Tuesday, lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a legal advocacy group well-known for their support of free speech, were representing her against the real estate giant.
The letter from Zillow also claims that McMansion Hell's actions "may violate" the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and state laws prohibiting interference with Zillow's business expectations and interests.
"Invoking the federal anti-hacking law is a serious matter," wrote Brian Fung in the Washington Post. "Prosecutors used the legislation to send a former Reuters journalist to prison for two years last year. That same law was at the center of a historic case involving Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide after being accused of illegally downloading academic papers from a university server."
EFF staff attorney Daniel Nazer responded to the claims in a letter to Zillow: "Our client has no obligation to, and thus will not, comply with Zillow's demands. Zillow's legal threats are not supported and plainly seek to interfere with protected speech." Ken White, an attorney who writes for the legal blog Popehat worded his disapproval more harshly, telling Buzzfeed that "Zillow's threats are meritless and frankly thuggish."
Wagner had briefly disabled her site to archive its contents after she received Zillow's letter, but on Thursday, Zillow backed down from their legal threats and the McMansion Hell blog was back up. Wagner did not hide her excitement when she tweeted "I'M A LIVING TESTIMONIAL: DONATE TO THE @EFF!!!