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The Company Formerly Known as Rap Genius Is Once Again Enmeshed in Controversy

When people started using Genius, Genius got into trouble.

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The “annotate-everything-on-the-Internet” service Genius is in hot water again, because people started using it to annotate things on the Internet.

Various media figures and anti-online harassment activists argue that Genius’ platform can be used to facilitate abuse, and that the company has acted callously in responding to these issues. Genius, in turn, says that the point of putting stuff on the Internet is so that it can spark conversation, and that its platform is operating as it should.

The most recent round of controversy centers on Genius’s Web annotation tool and the service it powers, News Genius. Affixing before a link allows anyone to annotate that story, effectively attaching a comments section to it. Genius has partnerships with publishers like the Washington Post and MSNBC, and it’s in talks with publications including the New York Times to enable annotation on their stories.

Over this past weekend, Ella Dawson, who does social media for TED, argued in a mildly viral blog post that Genius’s annotation tool could enable harassment and abuse. She specifically cited the experience of having people harshly annotate her own personal website. Here’s the gist of Dawson’s case against Genius:

Because my blog is currently a free WordPress website, anyone can use Genius to annotate my posts without my control. It is not opt-in for the creator, and if I want to engage with the annotations, I have to sign in using a Genius account. I see no way to report an annotation for abuse or harassment — perhaps that is only available for users? — and I see no way to block a user from annotating my content.

Genius employees and others have responded by annotating Dawson’s post critically, and Slate and the New York Observer have weighed in with takes of their own (in short, they think News Genius is bad). In aggregate, their argument is as follows:

  1. Without asking for consent, Genius adds a comments section to the websites of individuals and brands who don’t want a comments section (like, say, Re/code).
  2. Though there may not be any evidence of abuse or harassment yet, the open structure of Genius’s service could enable it in the future.
  3. Who will bear the brunt of any potential abuse that happens on Genius? The same people who suffer the most from Internet harassment already: Women.

On Team Genius, the argument is that while services like Facebook and Twitter allow people to block other users or hide content, they don’t prevent other people from sharing content about you (unless they’re spreading personal info, making threats, etc.).

Additionally, Leah Finnegan, who is the managing editor of News Genius (formerly of Gawker and the New York Times), appended an annotation to the Slate article that goes into more detail on Genius’s policy toward abuse and harassment:

I intimately understand the vagaries of web harassment. My face has been photoshopped onto a picture of a mutilated vagina. I worked at Gawker during Gamergate. I have gotten death threats. I am a Woman on the Internet, after all.

But no one is exempt from a closer look under the microscope of Genius — or whatever! — because of their gender. I want to make explicitly clear that Genius has zero tolerance for harassment and abuse. But asking questions and making pointed comments are not harassment and abuse. Criticism is not harassment or abuse.

In the meantime, Vijith Assar, a programmer who works at the New York Times, was so moved by Dawson’s post that he wrote a workaround for Web pages to block Genius’s Web annotation tool, called Genius Defender.

Previously, the erstwhile Rap Genius was focused on annotating music lyrics and fomenting discussion about them. The company had a tough time staying out of the limelight for the wrong reasons. One of its co-founders creepily annotated the manifesto of Isla Vista mass shooter Elliot Rodger (the startup summarily canned him), and the company got in trouble with Google for shady SEO marketing tactics.

After raising a $40 million funding round in 2014, the company announced that it was rebranding as Genius and that it would be opening up its annotation platform so that people could make comments on any Web article. It announced a lyrics partnership with Spotify in January, and has done a pretty good job of staying out of the headlines until the past few days.

We’ve sent a few questions to Genius for comment, and we’ll update this story if we hear back.

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