After people complained that News Genius could be a vector for harassment, Vijith Assar wrote a tool that would block it.
News Genius lets anyone add annotations to anything on the web. It's an interesting tool with some potentially powerful applications—but it's also adding a comments section on top of the entire internet, in a time when many sites (including Motherboard) are turning off the comments due to the potential for harassment. As the debate around News Genius rages, a writer and software developer named Vijith Assar is trying something different: Blocking News Genius altogether.
News Genius is one of the latest spin-offs from the lyrics annotation website formerly known as Rap Genius. Append the URL of an article to genius.it, and the article will pop up, with annotation bubbles on the right. Highlight the text, and you can add your own annotations as well.
According to its website, News Genius is supposed to transform online news into "an ongoing and evolving discussion between many parties." But the service isn't limited to news sites—it can be targeted at New York and someone's personal blog alike.
After having her personal blog annotated through News Genius, Ella Dawson wrote a post titled "How News Genius Silences Writers" that kicked off a still-ongoing controversy. To Dawson, News Genius adds a comments section to your blog that you can't opt out of or moderate, thus making it an obvious vector for online abuse.
That's why Vijith Assar built Genius Defender, a tool to block web annotations by making the text of your blog unreadable to Genius. "Not everything needs or deserves freeform annotation by users, and some things—some people—may be actively or disproportionately harmed by it," Assar wrote on his blog.
But Genius Defender isn't the solution to the problems Genius causes—and in fact, Assar said he hopes that there won't be widespread use of the tool in the future. "It's definitely intended as a way to change the framing rather than as an impenetrable tool," he told me.
Assar said that it would actually be "trivial" for Genius to bypass Genius Defender, but that in doing so, they would be "making a really awful public decision to target the users who have explicitly opted out."
And in any case, if Genius decides to escalate the arms race, they'll have the whole internet to contend with. Assar wrote in his blog post: "The code is completely free and open without any licensing restrictions whatsoever, so any company or site owner can use it, fork it, re-implement it in other languages, and customize the logic. Anybody who does the latter creates a new scrambling pattern which Genius will have to specifically devote engineering resources to un-scrambling!"
But the more sensible option would be for Genius to address concerns about abuse. In Assar's view, Genius should offer a "robust opt-out service" or just respect "the same exclusion mechanisms used by search engines" (e.g., robots.txt, a set of instructions given to web crawlers that, for instance, can ask Internet Archive not to archive pages).
After all, Genius currently allows publications like the New York Times (where Assar works) to pick and choose which articles can or can't be annotated. Why not offer that kind of choice to the rest of the web?
Genius did not respond to a request for comment, but we imagine they'll annotate the story if they like.