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Scooter company attempts to censor tech blogger with legal threat – December 2018

Los Angeles, CA

A scooter-share/rental company ordered a blogger who had published information on modifying its scooters to take down his post, and threatened him with legal action if he failed to do so. After a rebuttal from a digital rights nonprofit, the company apologized.

Key Player

Bird is a company, headquartered in Santa Monica, California, that operates fleets of dockless electric scooters in more than 100 cities worldwide. Scooter-share companies like Bird allow users to rent scooters and leave them wherever they please — hence, “dockless.” Rides are typically short — three miles or less — and provide an alternative to cars or public transportation. Users can find and unlock nearby electric scooters through Bird’s phone app.  

Cory Doctorow is a Los Angeles-based tech blogger for Boing Boing, a group blog site. He also works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit dedicated to defending digital rights like privacy and free expression, where he writes on the intersection of technology and Free Speech.

Further Details

In November 2018, Doctorow published a blog entry revealing that Bird scooters could be hacked using a $30 “conversion kit” that readers could order online from a Chinese company; with these kits, readers could disable the scooters’ tracking, recovery, and payment components, stripping them of their commercial use. Doctorow argued that many Bird scooters are impounded by towing companies. He posited that the company would not pay to recover them, meaning people could buy one cheaply at an auction and remove any remnants of Bird’s technology.

“Right now, scooter hacking is becoming one of the most interesting adventures in modern-day hacking,” Doctorow wrote. “You’ve got batteries and electronics and motors just sitting there, ready for the taking (and yes, through these auctions you can do this legally).”

On Dec. 20, 2018, Bird sent Doctorow a threat letter demanding the removal of his blog post, arguing that it violated the company’s intellectual property rights and touted “an illegal product that is solely designed to circumvent the copyright protections of Bird’s proprietary technology.” Bird also accused him of violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by promoting tools to circumvent controls on copyrighted materials.

“Mr. Doctorow’s blog promotes the use and sale of an illegal product that violates Bird’s copyright and other rights,” Senior Corporate Counsel Linda Kwak wrote. “Bird requests that Boing Boing immediately take down this offensive blog and terminate the user’s account for violation of Boing Boing’s Terms of Service.”

In response, Doctorow published the full letter in a blog post entitled “Bird Scooter tried to censor my Boing Boing post with a legal threat that’s so stupid, it’s a whole new kind of wrong.”

“We’re a small, shoestring operation,” Doctorow told TechCrunch. “Even though this particular threat is one that we have very deep expertise on, it’s still chilling when a company with millions in the bank sends a threat — even a bogus one like this — to you.”  With help from the EFF, Doctorow sent a rebuttal letter to Bird, accusing it of levelling “baseless legal threats,” overstepping its legal capability, and attempting to censor him.

“We hope that you will re-evaluate your decision to send a ‘Notice of Infringement’ regarding speech that does not in fact impinge on any of Bird’s rights,” EFF lawyer Kit Walsh wrote. “Journalists will continue to cover developments concerning Bird scooters, and Bird should not attempt to suppress coverage that it dislikes through meritless legal claims.”

Walsh also pointed out that the conversion kits do not violate the DMCA, thanks to an exemption that permits circumvention tools when they allow the “lawful modification of a vehicle function.”

Outcome

After EFF rebuttal letter, Bird apologizes

On Jan. 14, 2019, Bird apologized for its letter to Doctorow, saying its legal team had “overstretched.” Shortly thereafter, the company retracted its accusations.

“This was our mistake and we apologize to Cory Doctorow,” Bird wrote in a statement. “Bird celebrates freedom in many ways, freedom from traffic, congestion, as well as freedom of speech.”

External References

$30 plug-and-play kit converts a Bird scooter into a “personal scooter,” BoingBoing

Bird Scooter tried to censor my Boing Boing post with a legal threat that’s so stupid, it’s a whole new kind of wrong, BoingBoing

Scooter startup Bird tried to silence a journalist. It did not go well., TechCrunch

EFF flips Bird the bird, says Boing Boing post doesn’t violate copyright law, Ars Technica

Start-up Bird backs down in electric scooter legal row, BBC News

Bird apologizes for attempting to take down Boing Boing story about hacking its scooters, The Verge

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded April 18, 2019