So it turns out that you can pretty much do whatever you like on your own website

Last week, Audrey Watters blocked and Genius on her website. These two tools allow a ‘layer’ to be added to websites for annotation and discussion that can’t necessarily be controlled by the person who owns that site.

Blocking annotation tools does not stop you from annotating my work. I’m a fan of marginalia; I am. I write all over the books I’ve bought, for example. Blocking annotations in this case merely stops you from writing in the margins here on this website.

My first reaction? Audrey can do whatever she likes. Just as when she removed the ability to comment on her site a few years back, I didn’t understand the decision at first, but then it kind of made sense. Either way, it’s her site, and she can do whatever she wants.

So far, so why-are-you-even-writing-a-post-about-this?  Discussions on Twitter, Mastodon, Slack, and elsewhere show that this is a live issue. So, naturally I’ve been thinking about it. I have to say that I agree with Mike Caulfield’s sentiments:

My take (of course) is that annotation works best through a system of copies. Anyone should be able to annotate a copy of your work. But it’s not clear to me that people have the right to piggyback on the popularity of an address that you’ve worked your butt off to promote. It’s not clear to me that they should get to annotate the master file. This has always been the problem with comments as well — they work best on small sites, and go bad when they give users a much larger platform than they have earned. As with everything online, the phenomenon is gendered as well.

It seems what Audrey is doing is protecting her ‘means of production’ from what she considers to be an active assault from those who wish to piggyback on the success of her work. Some people have questioned how that works with the explicitly ‘open’ stance that Audrey takes. However, I think any perceived tension between her move and open licensing goes away when we think of some other examples.

Here’s three:

  1. Pokémon Go — this location-based, augmented reality game used some people’s residences as ‘gyms’ where characters in the game did battle. This caused real-world issues. Most people thought that random strangers pulling on to their drive to play games was an infringement of their civil liberties.
  2. Google Street View — this service involves a car mounted with 360° cameras taking photographs to improve Google’s mapping service. Faces were blurred out, but this wasn’t good enough for Germany’s stringent privacy laws. They’ve been prevented from capturing images at least once, especially when people are on their own property.
  3. Robots.txt — this text file that website owners can include in the root folder of their domain specifies what web crawlers can and cannot do. If you say that you don’t want your site to be indexed, then search engines and other aggregation engines should (legally?) comply.

Using these as touchstones, it seems fair enough for someone to insist that you create a copy of their work to be able to annotate it. As Mike Caulfield hints at, giving people the ability to comment on the master document seems like a privilege rather than a right.

Perhaps those creating annotation engines should find a way to seek the domain owner’s permission? An easy way to do that would be to get them to add the necessary code to activate annotation (as we did with OB101), rather than make it a free-for-all…

Image CC BY-NC-SA Karl Steel


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  1. Hi Doug,
    Completely agree with the idea that blocking comments, annotations etc. Is in the hands of the site owner. I didn’t really get the noise given the work is Creative Commons licensed and can there fore be copied, quoted etc..

    I do worry a bit about robots.txt I know some stuf has gone from the internet archive due to respecting this.
    Domain is given up, bought by resellers who slap on a robot.txt, archive deletes archive.
    Not good IMO. (I am not sure on the archives current position but I believe stuff has been lost. )

  2. Sounds like you’re agreeing with how Ted Nelson saw Xanadu and materials re-use

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