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The Story of the Futile Shop Web Page

Hi. I’m Mark, and once upon a time I designed and hosted a web site called “The Futile Shop” page. This was a website where consumers could post their complaints about their experiences at a Canadian based store called Future Shop™ (hereafter referred to as FS).

The site came about after I posted a message to the newsgroup “van.general” (Vancouver General news) about my shopping experience at FS in Vancouver. It wasn’t overly pleasant, but in the end it was satisfying because I managed to get them to honour their one time lowest price guarantee of paying 55% of the difference or it’s free.

I was surprised by the feedback. Dozens of other people responded to my posting with their own shopping experiences at the store. Because of the volume of information, I suggested someone should design a web site to host all this info – then it came to me – I should do it.

So in mid 1996, I set up the website, and I asked publicly in newsgroups for people to submit their FS shopping experiences, both good and bad. The website was called “Futile Shop”.

The site was live for about 3 or 4 months. It was averaging thousands of visits per month, and proved pretty popular with most folks on the Net. Every day my email in box was stuffed with newly submitted stories (mostly of bad experiences at the store) and it took quite a bit of my time to manage the site, update it with new stories, do a feature of the week, that sort of thing.

Then one day a fellow named Eric Ommundsen, who claimed to be part of FS’s management, contacted me by email. I got roped into saying something I shouldn’t have – Ommundsen said initially they had concerns with parts of the site. I wrote back asking which parts. I found out later this was not the best thing to say – I was basically admitting to him that yes, parts of the web site might be false. I wasn’t actually saying that or admitting it though. I asked him to identify “which parts” so I could go back to the original submitter of that particular story and get a reconfirmation of it’s accuracy.

Then the lawyers started in. I got the usual cease and desist order, threats of lawsuits, the whole shebang. I spoke with a few lawyers online, David Jones from Electronic Frontiers Canada (public rights advocacy group) and a local lawyer I paid to speak to. The advice generally all around was to pull the site, unless I wanted a huge rack of legal bills on my hands. It would all be a matter of proving not only did I not make up these stories, but proving that third parties who wrote them were typing the 100% truth.

I also discovered something a bit weird about Canadian civil law, or at least civil court rules. In Canada, the onus is on the accused, or defendant, to prove his innocence. The accuser (in this case FS), would not have to necessarily prove my guilt. They only had to cry “libel” and it would be good enough to go to court. This revelation deflated me. Part of the problem I had with the Futile Shop web site is that all the stories (save my own single tale) were submitted by third parties. By other consumers. I did not take the time to get sworn affidavits from each of the submitters that what they were saying was true. In the end, proving each and every story online was true would have been a nightmare scenario for me. I did take people by their word, and it turns out that was rather naive of me. I’m not saying the stories were false, or I didn’t believe them. I’m saying I could have had much stronger case for myself if I had done the legal crap of getting sworn statements to go with the stories.

After I pulled the site, I was getting dozens of emails per day asking where did it go. After several weeks of this, I decided to code a single web page for my personal site, and explain the details of where the Futile Shop web site went. I admit the language in it was a lot more, uh, adventurous than this page you’re reading here, but everything I reported was factual with regards to the start, run and end of the Futile Shop web page. I may have used words like “scum sucking lawyers” and “sales droids” but that was simply using literary license. No one actually believed that FS’s team of lawyers actively suck scum from somewhere, or that the sales staff in the stores were actually robots from George Lucas’ movies.

So, about a year after I pulled the Futile Shop web page, Jeanette and I were woken up at 6:30 on a Friday morning by our phone ringing. We went to answer it, and it was a fax. It rang again. And again. Finally, I switched on my computer and set up the fax modem card to receive this early morning, intrusion fax. I could tell right away before even reading it that it was designed to intimidate.

It was a letter from FS’s team of lawyers again. This time, they claimed they had serious issues with my solitary page on my personal site that detailed the history of the Futile Shop web site. They said in the fax that …”if the defamatory and malicious falsehoods contained in the article are not removed by 3:00pm (today) Future Shop will commence legal proceedings against Mark Prince.”

I didn’t have any falsehoods in that solitary web page. It was my experience with the company, my experience with the website, and the legal threats I received.

But I didn’t have a choice. They also contacted my site host and included them in the legal threat. My site host was upset – they had no involvement in what I wrote and frankly it was rather naive of the FS lawyers to include them. Meantime, I couldn’t get legal advice by 3pm, so I pulled the page (again). FS lawyers took away my freedom of speech – yet again.

I was extremely angered by this action. But I felt helpless. I didn’t have the money to mount a big legal case, and I didn’t have much support from the former “contributors” to the Futile Shop web page. The company knew it could bully me into pulling the page – I make this assumption based on the early morning fax, on a Friday, and the less than 9 hour time limit on removing the web page.

I was really bothered by this event for weeks, but finally I decided to let it rest. I got a certain sense of satisfaction out of knowing that at least some pople online knew what kind of store this was with their sales tactics (I myself was a victim of what I perceived as bait and switch advertising on at least 2 occasions), and at least some people around Canada knew how bullying the Company could be. The spectre of the “uncaring, faceless corporation and their lawyers” does come to mind.

For two years, I more or less let the matter die away, with the exception of not shopping at the stores, and recommending to anyone who asked me not to deal with this company in any way, shape or form. As a consumer, I felt it was a duty I had to do this.

Then in August of 1999, I was contacted by a CBC reporter. They had heard about my Futile Shop web page from David Jones of EFC. At first I didn’t want to have any part to do with this story, but my mind changed when I heard that the reporter had spoken to FS, and namely, Eric Ommundsen – the same FS management person who initially threatened legal action against me. Ommundsen told the reporter that he had no knowledge of why the Futile Shop web site was pulled, and claimed ignorance over the entire issue (except that he admitted he was aware of the site). This floored me. The company, through their representative, was lying to the CBC – bold faced lying. I have the emails and faxes to prove it.

That lie changed my mind. CBC basically had no story about the Futile Shop web site without my involvement, so I gave it to them. I gave them an archived version of the web site. I gave them emails, faxes, letters from FS employees and lawyers. I gave them everything I had on the subject, including the solitary web page from my personal site – the one that I got a “pull within 9 hours or be sued” letter on. The only thing I asked was not to be on camera. I have several reasons for this – some personal, some on legal advice.

On Tuesday, October 26, CBC ran the story on a show called Marketplace. My part was fairly small (a few minutes in the middle of a piece on corporations vs. the Internet, and then more mention at the end of the story where the host asked some questions) but effective. FS, throught their spokespeople, was exposed as a company that will lie and deny about events when they speak to the press. The CBC’s on air version of this: “When we first asked FS about the web sites, they said they had taken no direct action to kill them. After weeks of inquiries, FS confirmed their lawyers’ letters to Prince.”

It’s ironic that the company that initially accused me of making up things and lying about them was actually caught in a lie themselves. It was only after they had my faxes and emails “thrust in their face” (my words) that they backpeddled and admited they might have had some involvement in having the site shut down.

Overall, I think I came out pretty well, and the truth was told – the site was not a collection of lies authored by me (as I was accused of), but a grass roots swelling of dissatisfied FS consumers, venting their stories about bad service, rude sales staff, misleading guarantees, and misleading advertisements.

And you know what? I feel a certain sense of satisfaction from this.

As a final note. I’ve gone over this piece about a dozen times… re editing it each time. Why? Because I don’t plan to ever remove this from my personal site – legal threats or not. The above is all factual, all true, and much of it is in the public arena now, thanks to Marketplace’s broadcast of this information. I stand behind every word I’ve typed. I’m not going to let the company bully me again.



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