Cory Doctorow doesn’t like censorship. He especially doesn’t like having his own work censored.
Anyone who knows Doctorow knows his popular Boing Boing culture and technology blog, and anyone who reads Boing Boing knows Doctorow and his cohort of bloggers. The blogger side, a special adviser to the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, has written for years on the topics of technology, piracy, security research, digital rights online, and censorship and their intersection with freedom of speech and expression.
However, this week it appeared that his own freedom of speech and expression may have been under threat.
Doctorow revealed in a blog post on Friday that scooter startup Bird sent him a legal threat, accusing him of copyright infringement and that his blog post encourages “illegal conduct.”
In his letter to Doctorow, Bird demanded that he “immediately take[s] Down with this offensive blog. “
Doctorow refused, published the legal threat and responded with a rebuttal letter from the EFF accusing the scooter startup of making “unsubstantiated legal threats” in an attempt to “suppress the coverage that it does not like.”
The total debacle began after Doctorow wrote about how Bird’s many abandoned scooters can easily be turned into a “personal scooter” by swapping their guts with a plug-and-play converter kit. To cite an initial report from Hackaday, these scooters can have “all recovery and payment components permanently disabled” using the converter kit, available for purchase in China on eBay for about $ 30.
In fact, Doctorow’s blog post was only two paragraphs long, and while it didn’t link directly to the eBay listing, it did quote the hacker who wrote about it in the first place – bringing cool stuff to the masses in bitesize form in the real boing fashion boing.
Bird did not like this and lead attorney Linda Kwak sent the letter, which EFF published today, stating that Doctorow’s blog post was to “promote the sale / use of an illegal product that is exclusively designed to circumvent Bird’s copyright protections. The proprietary technology, as described in greater detail below, as well as the promotion of illegal activities in general by encouraging vandalism and misappropriation of Bird’s property. “The letter also falsely stated that Doctorow’s blog post “provides links to a website where such infringing product can be purchased”, as the post at no point links to the eBay converter kit that can be purchased.
EFF senior attorney Kit Walsh responded. “Our client is under no obligation to comply with your request to remove the item,” he wrote. “Bird is not pleased that the technology exists to modify the scooters it implements, but it must not make unfounded legal threats to silence reports about that technology.”
The three-page rebuttal says Bird improperly used legal statutes to justify his demands for Boing Boing to take down the blog post. The letter added that unplugging and discarding a motherboard that contains unwanted code inside the scooter is not an act of cheating, as it does not bypass or modify Bird’s code, which copyright law says is illegal.
As Doctorow himself put it on his blog on Friday: “If motherboard swaps were circumvention, selling someone a screwdriver could be an offense punishable by a five-year prison sentence and a $ 500,000 fine.”
In an email to TechCrunch, Doctorow said legal threats “are not fun.”
“We are a small operation, and while this particular threat is one that we have a lot of experience with, it is still chilling when a company with millions in the bank sends a threat, even a bogus one like this, to you.” ,” he said.
The EFF response also said that Doctorow’s free speech “does not actually affect any of Bird’s rights,” adding that Bird should not send takedown notices to journalists using “legal claims without merit,” it says. the letter.
“So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter if Bird is correct or not when he claims that it is illegal to turn a Bird scooter into a personal scooter,” Walsh said in another blog post. “Either way, Boing Boing was free to report on it,” he added.
What’s strange is why Bird focused on Doctorow, and apparently no one else, until now.
TechCrunch reached out to several people who wrote about and engaged with blog posts and articles about the Bird conversion kit. Of those who responded, all said they had not received a legal claim from Bird.
We asked Bird why he sent the letter, and if this was a unique letter or if Bird had sent similar lawsuits to others. When it was reached, a Bird spokesperson did not comment on the record.
Too often, companies send threats and lawsuits to try to silence work or findings they find critical, often using misinterpreted, incorrect, or vague statutes to get things off the internet. Some companies have been more successful than others, despite an increase in awareness and abundance of bugs, and a general willingness to fix security issues before they inevitably become public.
Now Bird becomes the latest in a long line of companies that have threatened reporters or security researchers, along with companies like drone maker DJI, who in 2017 threatened a security investigator who was trying to report a bug in good faith. , and the spammer River City, who sued a security researcher who found the spammer’s exposed servers and a reporter who wrote about it. More recently, the maker of the password manager, Keeper, sued a security reporter alleging defamatory comments about a security flaw in one of its products. The case was eventually dropped, but not before more than 50 experts, advocates, and journalists (including this reporter) signed a letter calling on companies to stop using legal threats to suppress and silence a security investigator.
That effort prompted several companies, notably LinkedIn and Tesla, to lower their protection from security researchers by changing their vulnerability disclosure rules to promise that the companies will not seek to prosecute hackers acting in good faith.
However, some companies have rebuffed that trend and have taken a more hostile, aggressive, and regressive approach toward security investigators and reporters.
“Bird Scooters and other dockless transports are very controversial right now, in large part thanks to a ‘fast moving, break stuff’ approach to regulation, and it’s not surprising that they want to control the debate,” said Doctorow.
“But in my opinion, this type of intimidation says a lot about the general character of the company,” he said.