Laura @ Smitten

Welcone to SF. Just like LA. But nice.

Gentlemanly Wisdom

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. 

WordPress and the Law(suit) – Automattic’s Response to Legal Threats

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:

photo-dec-11-2-53-43-pm

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.

WordPress + the Law(suit)

A few links and illustrative examples, for my talk.

  1. Legal Threats and Transparency: At A8C 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.
  2. Copyright Infringement: We reject many copyright claims on grounds of fair use (stats are here). We also have guidelines for users (and people who complain) about what fair use is. I wish more platforms stood firm on fair use (many more are now). With regard to code, and the GPL: Wix reminded us to be very mindful of our licenses. Everyone who works with the GPL should know a little about license compatibility – this page is the best resource for that.
  3. Trademark Infringement: These can be very ridiculous. Janet Jackson complained about use of her name, in violation of trademark. We were threatened by the most litigious dessert in America.
  4. Patent Trolls: A patent on podcasting. Come on.
  5. The Truth Hurts: Whistleblower in Ireland (a close call!), the DCCC leaker on WordPress.com, lots of issues in Turkey. Again, we try to be as transparent as possible – Russia for example.

Hello .blog!

 

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.

Law, Borders, Speech

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.

NY Times – Trump Letter

By now, you’ve probably seen the letter that the Assistant GC of the NY Times sent to the Trump campaign, in response to the threat of an (almost definitely) unwarranted lawsuit.

The full letter is below. Give it a read if you haven’t already. It takes about one minute, from beginning to end.

Like many, I wanted to stand up and applaud this letter. Putting the substance aside, I write a lot of these letters in my job for Automattic, and think this one is a near perfect example of a legal threat response.

Three things stood out:

  1. The tone is firm, but not bellicose. The letter does not hedge. It makes clear that the Times believes they are on solid legal ground, and welcomes the plaintiff to challenge their position in court. It does not leave the door open to further dialog or negotiating. At the same time it does not seek to escalate the rhetoric, or try to goad the other side into a fight. “Our position is clear and we’re standing by it. Your move.”
  2. It speaks to the intended audiences. The plaintiff’s lawyer is the primary audience. But at the same time, the Times knew that the letter would be public, and had to consider this in its response. It’s a fine line to walk. In cases like this, there’s an opening to use the platform of a public letter to articulate some larger principles, and speak to a broad audience about a set of values that are important to the Times. They did a good job of taking this opportunity but not going overboard into grandstanding, which can needlessly throw gas on a fire if the other side thinks they are being used for a PR stunt.
  3. There’s no legalese. At all. The letter doesn’t cite any cases, doctrines, statutes. But it is structured as a legal argument, hitting all of the points needed to refute a libel claim. The writer assumes the plaintiff knows the law, and does not waste time trying to educate. It deals with the other side on even terms, which can be powerful. “We know your claim is bogus, and so do you.” 

I also loved this piece by Mr. McCraw about the public response to the letter. There are a lot of great points in the article, but I particularly loved that Mr. McCraw called out his colleagues who helped write and refine the letter. It’s always a team effort.

 

 

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