Welcone to SF. Just like LA. But nice.
When I have quiet moments alone with Peter I like to talk to him about the world, and impart some gentlemanly wisdom that he’ll need for the future.
Today’s tip: every man needs a well worn, comfy cashmere sweater, for wear around the house – reading the Sunday paper, for example.
I’m happy to report he’s already taken my advice to heart.
I was honored by the invite to give a talk at the Post Status Publish conference last Thursday. Thanks again to Krogsgard for the invitation – it was a great event, that I hope was not bogged down too much by a late afternoon discussion of legal issues.
My original topic was “WordPress + the Law”, but I changed the title slightly to “WordPress + the Law(suit)”: I used some of the many lawsuits we see against Automattic as examples of the legal issues that hosts, users, developers working with WordPress might see.
At the beginning of my talk, I laid out three general principals for dealing with legal threats that we follow at Automattic. Now doing this short follow up post to flesh out those principles a bit more, since a few people asked about them after the talk.
Automattic’s Approach to Legal Threats
Cut Through the Noise, Don’t be Intimidated. We receive a lot of legal threats. Some of them become actual lawsuits, but the vast majority do not. Most legal complaints relate to content that we host, that someone has a problem with. We steadfastly defend our users’ rights, though we do remove things that are truly harmful or not allowed under our user guidelines. Just because a lawyer, or someone who’s willing to invest in hiring one, says that a website should come down does not mean that we automatically do what they say. In many cases, the louder the complaint, the more a site needs to stay up. This is very true in whistleblower situations. TLDR: don’t be intimidated by a lawyer threat letter, do your research, stand your ground.
Side note: when threats do come in, there’s apparently a rule you learn in lawyer school that says you have to print out the entire contents of the blog you’re complaining about, and attach it to your complaint. For some older sites, the print out can get pretty big. This is a lawsuit threat we received from India, that came delivered in a box. By our standard metric, it measured a 0.67 PBR:
Transparency. We try to provide as much information as possible about the government legal threats we receive, and our guidelines for responding. Check out our Transparency Report, and our Legal Guidelines. I think all companies, hosts especially, should produce these kinds of reports, so users know the volume and kind of government demands a host receives, and how they respond. Individually, this information gives users of a platform comfort that their host has their back. In the aggregate, this data really informs the policy debate about government surveillance and censorship.
A Level Playing Field. A golden rule for us is to, at minimum, make the playing field level between our users and those who might have legal complaints about their sites. If there’s a legitimate complaint, we will of course take action – but more often than not, we see deep pocketed platintiffs and big companies make idle threats. On many platforms, they get what they want – the removal of a site or post they don’t like, only because they can bang the table louder than a small individual publisher. We don’t let that happen on WordPress.com. Pushing back on abuse, giving users full transparency about complaints, and being as transparent as possible when we see abuse helps to make it a fair fight for those who put their trust in us as host. Take a look at our Hall of Shame for some of the worst examples of abuse. As our transparency report indicates, copyright and trademark complaints are two fertile grounds for shenanigans. We reject a very high percentage of the complaints we see in this area. I’ve written before about how internet platforms should do more in this area, specifically standing up for users’ fair use rights.
A few links and illustrative examples, for my talk.
Today, at long last, the .blog domain is live and open for everyone to use.
This is my first post to.. theoldfashioned.blog.
It’s been a long, interesting, and very educational road – from application, auction, delegation, transfer, and launch of .blog. Big kudos to the Automattic (and KKWT!) teams for making it happen, and also to our friends at Fairwinds. Could not have done it without you.
Here’s to the success of .blog!
If you want your own .blog domain: get them while they’re hot. You can go to get.blog (Automattic’s registrar), or any of the 100s of other registrars that are selling the domain.
I took part in a very interesting conference: “Law, Borders, and Speech“, at Stanford Law School last week. I had the honor to be part of a panel discussion with some really accomplished thinkers, in the area of jurisdiction and borders online – including David Post and David Johnson, whose seminal atricle on the topic turned 20 years old (!), this year. How prescient they were..
My take on our panel was from an in the trenches point of view. At Automattic, we deal with tough questions of jurisdiction, international law, and free speech, on a daily basis. The issues themselves can be academic, but the implementation is most certainly not.
My observation on the panel was that internet platforms (like WordPress.com, or Facebook) sit in an important middle ground, between “cyberspace” and the real world. As a result, we can serve as a choke point – an easily locatable recipieint of a subpoena for otherwise anonymous user information, a target of lawsuits for publishing unpopular speech. But we can also have a point of view on important issues like free speech or net neutrality, and can serve as an advocate for these values, for ourselves and our users, especially.
After the conference discussion, I’d modify my message slightly. Companies and platforms not only can have a point of view, they should have one. We are capable of advancing values, or the rights of their users, and we should do this, where possible. The rules of the internet are unsettled and rapidly changing. Some governments are strongly asserting their own views on what speech should be permissible, and what should be censored. But many other governments, including those that should be staunch defenders of these values, are not as involved. This leaves an important vacuum that platforms who value speech can work to fill. It’s interesting, and a bit scary to think that internet companies, even very small ones, can act in this capacity. Essentially shaping and conducting foreign policy. But this is the current situation, and it’s a threat as well as an opportunity for our industry.
I’ve written about a similar idea before, in the context of copyright law.
Until copyright laws change to provide some meaningful penalties for targeting fair use, internet companies need to be more active on copyright issues, serving as the first line of defense in protecting the fair uses of content that have helped to make their platforms so popular. Not to mention profitable, as fair use of content drives consumer demand for online information and services.
I think the same holds true for other speech issues, especially for users outside of the United States. Internet companies, from all countries, can, and should, play a role in shaping the debate and the law.
Video of the panel I was on, discussing a lot of these bigger picture issues is here. Huge kudos to the awesome Daphne Keller of Stanford CIS for assembling such an interesting, diverse, and wide ranging set of views.