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Genius responds to Congresswoman Katherine Clark's letter on preventing abuse

Rep. Clark wants Genius to share more.

Bill Clark / Getty

Over the past few days, a vocal group of activists and people in media circles have charged that the News Genius Web annotation tool from the startup Genius can be used to harass and abuse people online. By effectively duplicating and attaching a line-by-line comments section to any article, with or without the consent of the author, they say that Genius “silences writers.”

In a letter sent to Genius earlier today, Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D., Mass.) agreed with these critics, formally asking the company to clarify what actions it is taking to prevent possible abuse. In a letter provided to Re/code, Genius said that while it appreciated Rep. Clark’s thoughts on online harassment, “we want to be clear that Genius does not enable abuse. This is a false narrative that has taken hold on Twitter and other outlets.”

Sharing an image of the note on Twitter and Facebook, Clark linked to a Slate article that critically discussed a specific blog post that set off the latest Genius controversy. In the letter, she calls out Genius’s lack of easily accessible abuse reporting tools and charges that the service “has been shown to enable abusive behavior.” You can read the full letter below.

The controversy that instigated Clark’s message to Genius has been under way for a few days now. Over the weekend, a woman named Ella Dawson published a post on her personal website arguing that Genius “silences writers” by allowing anyone to annotate (almost) anything on the Web, without the consent of authors. Dawson and others also say that the company hews to a double standard because it will disable annotations on certain articles from certain publishers but not for individuals. People with knowledge of the matter say that anti-abuse activists who have worked with Clark in the past brought the issue to her attention.

Genius has said that its Web annotation tool doesn’t modify the content on the original posts, it just effectively scans it and duplicates* material that is already public. Until today, Genius’s reporting mechanism appeared to be close to nonexistent as there wasn’t an obvious reporting button like on Facebook or YouTube. In response to the recent controversy, however, Genius today rolled out such a “report abuse” button on the Web annotation tool, available to anyone — logged in to Genius or not.

In one instance, Clark’s letter mischaracterizes what the company’s technology actually does. Genius’s tool doesn’t actually “inject comments” into “protected content,” as Clark says in her letter. Genius runs on an algorithm that scans the text of Web pages, and it creates a separate link based on that scan that enables the annotation tool. Clark also goes on to say that Genius “has been shown to enable abuse,” but she does not refer to a specific incident.

This is not the first time that Clark, who represents several Boston suburbs, has tackled issues related to online harassment. Last March, Clark called on the FBI to make the misogynistic Gamergate movement a “priority,” and she brought Gamergate target and anti-abuse activist Zoe Quinn to speak at a Congressional briefing. Just over two weeks ago, Clark appeared at SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit where she announced her “cybercrime enforcement training” legislation.

Earlier this year, Clark’s home in Massachusetts was “swatted,” meaning that someone called 911 and lied about an incident in order to send police SWAT teams to swarm her house. No one was hurt.

In a phone conversation with Re/code, Genius co-founder Ilan Zechory said that Genius “takes this stuff really seriously.”

Zechory said that there is a group of volunteer community moderators (like on Reddit) who examine all this content and can take action if they see abuse. He says that there is also a full-time staffer, originally a Genius community member, whose job is to monitor all comments made on the Web annotation tool as a safeguard, should the moderators miss something.

Volunteer moderation is tricky, as Reddit has learned after numerous scandals, because the mods are not necessarily accountable to the company and, in Reddit’s case, they are the people who make the site tick. Zechory says that as Genius’s user base grows larger, it will add more staff to handle the moderation, who will also work with the volunteers.

“I think that … whether it’s pen and paper or Twitter or Instagram or anywhere you can put text in a box and publish it, there’s no way you can architect the Internet so there’s zero chance of abuse,” Zechory said. “You need to have good monitoring, good culture, good response and good mechanisms.”

Referring to social media services like Twitter or Facebook, Zechory added, “Genius is so far out ahead of these places in terms of not allowing abuse.”

Here’s Rep. Clark’s letter, and an additional statement provided to Re/code by her office:

After working with victims of online threats and harassment as well as advocacy groups and online platforms, it is clear that we can’t stem the torrent of online abuse until corporations that develop apps and platforms take responsibility to consider how their technology could be used to enable abuse. The vast majority of developers are well-intentioned and are innovating in ways that are beneficial to online communication and our economy; however, it often does not occur to them how their great idea could be used by someone wishing to do harm. By raising awareness about online abuse, I’m hopeful that more developers and corporations will take the time to think about how their products might enable abusive behavior so it can be prevented or mitigated.

And here’s Genius’s response:

Dear Representative Clark,

Thank you for your letter. We are glad to hear from a member of Congress who cares deeply about online harassment and abuse.

We built the Genius Web Annotator to allow anyone to contribute to a layer of context, commentary, and criticism on top of any web page. Like every platform that enables commentary, it has the potential to be misused. However, we want to be clear that Genius does not enable abuse. This is a false narrative that has taken hold on Twitter and other outlets.

While we encourage constructive critiques of the media, abuse and harassment have no place on Genius and are not tolerated. We have a strict policy against abuse that our community has been enforcing for years — our response to abusive content is to delete the content and suspend the user account.

To date, our community has tagged @genius-moderation on annotations to report abuse, which has worked effectively. In addition, a Genius staff member reads every annotation created with the Genius Web Annotator. Today we released a feature that allows anyone to report abuse by clicking a single button on any annotation.

Our goal is to use annotation to enhance the public discourse — we can only achieve this by building an inclusive community, which is why we take issues of abuse and harassment seriously.

We hope to continue this dialogue. If you’re open, we’d love to have you visit our offices and learn more about our company and community.

Genius co-founder & CEO

* A couple different programmers have developed workarounds for people looking to disable Genius annotations on their articles.

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