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Community sites in a duel

Somebody switches the signs pointing to the popular Net community CraigsList.org, causing many subscribers to think the free listings for apartments, jobs, and events has been hijacked.

Somebody switched the signs pointing to the popular Net community CraigsList.org this week, causing many subscribers to think the free listings for apartments, jobs, and events in the San Francisco Bay Area had been hijacked by a similar but commercial service.

The sudden takeover of ListFoundation.org, which had been CraigsList's online home since last summer, also prompted CraigsList founder, Craig Newmark, to kick-start a legal fight today over the use of the Net address.

Newmark yesterday told his 8,000 devoted users to redirect their Web browsers and emails to CraigsList.org, where the site resided when it launched in 1995. But what wasn't made clear to subscribers is that the switch actually resulted from an August 27 agreement in which Newmark relinquished the ListFoundation domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org" to Nancy Melone, his former business partner, who now runs a company called Metrovox of Orinda, California.

"We wished her well in her new venture, but we wish this hadn't happened the way it had--we were very much caught off guard," Newmark said. "We're still CraigsList.org--we haven't sold out, and we're maintaining true to our principles."

Metrovox is the creator of the new ListFoundation site, which Melone says is also trying to build grassroots success by letting visitors post classified-like advertisements from major cities around the country. The difference is that by October, Metrovox will charge companies from $25 to $40 to post job openings for a month, dedicating part of the profits to charity.

"We're five people trying to take the great start that ListFoundation and CraigsList had and make it even better," Melone states in a notice on her site that clarifies the differences between CraigsList and her site.

While apparently limited in scope, the CraigsList dispute underscores a growing tension between the grassroots legacy of free Net communities and commercial sites making a push on the Net.

Although Newmark stopped carrying advertisements on his site in 1997 to keep his down-home feel, CraigsList has stumbled onto a formula that for-profit outfits covet. Portals, newspaper sites, and other online services are constantly competing to garner steady usage of their classified sections to deliver eyeballs to advertisers.

After turning CraigsList into the nonprofit ListFoundation last summer, Melone and Newmark decided to go their separate ways last month. The two disagreed on the direction of the new venture. ListFoundation was supposed to branch the original CraigsList out to new cities and give money to nonprofit organizations, which it has.

Legal battle
Although Newmark admits that Melone now controls the names, he sent her a "breach of settlement" letter today alleging that her new service is causing consumer confusion. He also claims that when Melone relaunched the ListFoundation site, she also disabled his "CraigsList.com" site without permission, although it's now up and running.

"With the legal letter, we're just hoping for an honest, clear separation for our group, which is a nonprofit corporation, and Metrovox," Newmark said. "We can substantiate a lot of confusion."

Melone counters that the agreement gave her sole control over the Net names and didn't stipulate what type of service she could offer under the banners.

"It's written in black and white. A contract was signed, and they gave me the [Web addresses]," she said today.

The new ListFoundation will quickly expand to other cities, Melone said, which CraigsList has pledged to do but hasn't started yet.

"I'm just trying to take the whole homegrown community to Los Angeles and the East Coast, and they don't want me to do that," she said. "We're not some giant Silicon Valley-backed consortium that is trying to make gigamillions and have an IPO. We work out of a bedroom out of my home."

Newmark also acknowledged that the agreement didn't stipulate how the ListFoundation Net addresses could be used. The outcome of the legal dispute could decide that, however.

For CraigsList users, the switch was no doubt baffling. But some say the appeal of CraigsList will be hard to duplicate elsewhere, and that users will find their way home.

"You tend to trust the people who are involved with CraigsList because it has grown organically, and it's local," said Adi Cohen, a San Francisco resident who has used the list to look for a motorcycle or drum kit. "It's more trustworthy than classifieds--there is no equivalent."