March 21, 2019
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Scooter startup Bird tried to silence a journalist. It did not go well.

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Cory Doctorow doesn’t like censorship. He especially doesn’t like his own work being censored.

Anyone who knows Doctorow knows his popular tech and culture blog Boing Boing, and anyone who reads Boing Boing knows Doctorow and his cohort of bloggers. The part-blogger, part special advisor at the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, has written for years on topics of technology, hacking, security research, online digital rights, and censorship and its intersection with free speech and expression.

Yet, this week it looked like his own free speech and expression could have been under threat.

Doctorow revealed in a blog post on Friday that scooter startup Bird sent him a legal threat, accusing him of copyright infringement and that his blog post encourages “illegal conduct.”

In its letter to Doctorow, Bird demanded that he “immediately take[s] down this offensive blog.”

Doctorow declined, published the legal threat, and fired back with a rebuttal letter from the EFF accusing the scooter startup of making “baseless legal threats” in an attempt to “suppress coverage that it dislikes.”

The whole debacle started after Doctorow wrote about about how Bird’s many abandoned scooters can be easily converted into a “personal scooter” by swapping out its innards with a plug-and-play converter kit. Citing an initial write-up by Hackaday, these scooters can have “all recovery and payment components permanently disabled” using the converter kit, available for purchase from China on eBay for about $30.

In fact, Doctorow’s blog post was only two paragraphs long and, though didn’t link to the eBay listing directly, did cite the hacker who wrote about it in the first place — bringing interesting things to the masses in bitesize form in in true Boing Boing fashion.

Bird didn’t like this much, and senior counsel Linda Kwak sent the letter — which the EFF published today — claiming that Doctorow’s blog post was “promoting the sale/use of an illegal product that is solely designed to circumvent the copyright protections of Bird’s proprietary technology, as described in greater detail below, as well as promoting illegal activity in general by encouraging the vandalism and misappropriation of Bird property.” The letter also falsely stated that Doctorow’s blog post “provides links to a website where such Infringing Product may be purchased,” given that the post at no point links to the purchasable eBay converter kit.

EFF senior attorney Kit Walsh fired back. “Our client has no obligation to, and will not, comply with your request to remove the article,” she wrote. “Bird may not be pleased that the technology exists to modify the scooters that it deploys, but it should not make baseless legal threats to silence reporting on that technology.”

The three-page rebuttal says Bird used incorrectly cited legal statutes to substantiate its demands for Boing Boing to pull down the blog post. The letter added that unplugging and discarding a motherboard containing unwanted code within the scooter isn’t an act of circumventing as it doesn’t bypass or modify Bird’s code — which copyright law says is illegal.

As Doctorow himself put it in his blog post Friday: “If motherboard swaps were circumvention, then selling someone a screwdriver could be an offense punishable by a five year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.”

In an email to TechCrunch, Doctorow said that legal threats “are no fun.”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 10: Journalist Cory Doctorow speaks onstage at “Snowden 2.0: A Field Report from the NSA Archives” during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)

“We’re a small, shoestring operation, and 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,” he said.

The EFF’s response also said that Doctorow’s freedom of speech “does not in fact impinge on any of Bird’s rights,” adding that Bird should not send takedown notices to journalists using “meritless legal claims,” the letter said.

“So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Bird is right or wrong when it claims that it’s illegal to convert a Bird scooter to a personal scooter,” said Walsh in a separate blog post. “Either way, Boing Boing was free to report on it,” she added.

What’s bizarre is why Bird targeted Doctorow and, apparently nobody else — so far.

TechCrunch reached out to several people who wrote about and were involved with blog posts and write-ups about the Bird converter kit kit. Of those who responded, all said that they had not received a legal demand from Bird.

We asked Bird why it sent the letter, and if this was a one-off letter or if Bird had sent similar legal demands to others. When reached, a Bird spokesperson did not comment on the record.

All too often, companies send legal threats and demands to try to silence work or findings that they find critical, often using misinterpreted, incorrect or vague legal statutes to get things pulled off from the internet. Some companies have been more successful than others, despite an increase in awareness and bug bounties, and a general willingness to fix security issues before they inevitably become public.

Now Bird becomes the latest in a long list of companies that have threatened reporters or security researchers, alongside companies like drone maker DJI, which in 2017 threatened a security researcher trying to report a bug in good faith, and spam operator River City, which sued a security researcher who found the spammer’s exposed servers and a reporter who wrote about it. Most recently, password manager maker Keeper sued a security reporter claiming allegedly defamatory remarks over a security flaw in one of its products. The case was eventually dropped but not before over 50 experts, advocates, and journalist (including this reporter) signed onto a letter calling for companies to stop using legal threats to stifle — and silence security researcher.

That effort resulted in several companies — notably LinkedIn and Tesla — to double down on their protection of security researchers by changing their vulnerability disclosure rules to promise that the companies will not seek to prosecute hackers acting in good-faith.

But some companies have bucked that trend and have taken a more hostile, aggressive — and regressive — approach to security researchers and reporters.

“Bird Scooters and other dockless transport are hugely controversial right now, thanks in large part to a ‘move-fast, break-things’ approach to regulation, and it’s not surprising that they would want to control the debate,” said Doctorow.

“But to my mind, this kind of bullying speaks volumes about the overall character of the company,” he said.

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New WordPress policy allows it to shut down blogs of Sandy Hook deniers

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WordPress has taken down a handful alt-right blogs, according to several complaints from affected blog owners and readers who claim the sites were removed from, despite not being in violation of the company’s Terms of Service. Some site owners also said they were not notified of the shutdown in advance and have lost their work. The removals, we’ve learned, are in part due to a new policy WordPress has rolled out that now prohibits blogs from the “malicious publication of unauthorized, identifying images of minors.”

Yes, that’s right: the company has created a new rule to specifically handle the Sandy Hook conspiracists, and boot them from

While some of the affected sites had already been flagged for other violations, many were hosting Sandy Hook conspiracy theories and other “false flag” content.

In a YouTube video, the host of one site lamented, “They have wiped out 11 years of my fucking life.” He then read through WordPress’s Terms of Service, confused as to how he was in violation.

According to Google’s cache, his site hosted 9/11 “truther” content and claimed that Sandy Hook was a staged event. These are generally repugnant points of view to a large swath of people, but he’s correct in saying they weren’t views that WordPress had prohibited.

The update to WordPress’s policy follows a damning report from The NYT this week that explained on how the world’s largest blogging service has allowed Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists to remain online.

The issue, in part, has to do with how WordPress’s policies were originally written, the article explained.

WordPress policies were designed to be more resistant to the strategic use of copyright claims as a means of getting content removed. Longtime web veterans know they were written this way because they were created at a time when large corporations would wield copyright law – like the DMCA – as a weapon used to force platforms to take down content about their company that they deemed unfavorable.

But in recent years, the permissiveness these policies has also created loopholes for those whose spread disinformation, incite hatred and violence, and post abusive and offensive content to the web.

With little other recourse available to them, some Sandy Hook parents have used copyright law get images of their children removed from the web.

As The NYT explained, a Sandy Hook victim’s father, Leonard Pozner, filed copyright claims with a number of platforms, including WordPress, on images of his son Noah, a 6-year old victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Facebook, Amazon and Google complied with those requests. But WordPress responded with form letters that explained why the content could stay online.

The responses, which Mr. Ponzer described to the paper as “automated, very generic,” and “very cold,” said that the conspiracy blog posts represented “fair use” of the material. It defined fair use as anything that included “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.”

Unbelievably, the letters also warned Mr. Ponzer that it could collect damages from him for knowingly materially misrepresenting copyrights.

Yes, WordPress told the father of a murdered 6-year old that it could seek damages from him if he didn’t stop asking it to remove the stomach-churningly offensive content from those who believe the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, and that parents mourning the loss of their children were actors.

The company told The NYT that language was a part of a predefined statement it used, and was sorry that it did so in this particular situation.

However, it also admitted that the posts in question weren’t in violation of any current WordPress user guidelines or copyright law.

We understand the company has since phoned Mr. Ponzer to apologize directly. It then created a new policy to address the problem.

Its new policy reads:

The policy affects blogs hosted on, not self-hosted blogs using WordPress software.

Combined, WordPress powers 31.6 percent of websites on the web, and has 60% of the CMS market, so this change has a sizable impact on the web as a whole.

The company declined to comment on the new policy.

If the booted bloggers now move to their own self-hosted sites, the responsibility of shutting them down will fall on the web hosting companies. Of course, don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. 

Some of the affected bloggers will probably claim their rights to free speech are being violated. They’re wrong. The First Amendment protects people in the U.S. from the government censoring or punishing you for what you say. It doesn’t protect your Twitter account, Facebook profile, or now, your blog.


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Open source database startup MariaDB confirms $27M investment led by Alibaba

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Open source database startup MariaDB has announced a new $27 million round of funding led by Alibaba, confirming the news that TechCrunch reported in September.

As we wrote then, Alibaba contributed the majority of the round, supplying €20 million of the total €22.9 million raised.

A range of existing investors added that extra bit and they were confirmed to include Intel Capital, California Technology Ventures, Tesi, SmartFin Capital and Open Ocean. This new financing takes MariaDB’s total raised from investors to $98 million, $54 million of that sum arrived this year.

There’s no valuation announced with this round but, as we said in September, the deal values MariaDB at around the €300 million ($354 million) mark. That’s a decent jump on the $200 million-$250 million valuation it got in May when it raised €25 million (then worth $27 million) from the European Investment Bank.

MariaDB, which is headquartered in Finland with an office in California, is best known for operating the most popular alternative to MySQL, a database management system. It said in a statement it has made “historical” revenue gains during its most recent quarter and financial year.

While it did not disclose figures, it claimed its average customer deal size has double and it has begun to grow into new areas, including a first enterprise-wide replacement and migration from Oracle Enterprise to MariaD.

The deal marks Alibaba Cloud’s most notable overseas investment. Its deals to date have all been in China and they include cloud storage provider Qiniu and big data firm Dt Dream.

Alibaba already works with MariaDB via its Alibaba Cloud business — which is the Chinese firms fastest growing business unit — but Alibaba has grander plans to take on the top cloud computing players, such as AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure.

Closer collaboration with MariaDB is likely to be an important part of that strategy and we may yet see it write checks for other players in the cloud computing space. Overall it is a tough mission with AWS such a dominant player, as Amazon’s recent earnings reminded anyone with a short memory.

“MariaDB is becoming the gold standard for enterprise-grade open source databases. We believe that the symbiotic relationships found in the open source community contribute to the success of both MariaDB’s database technology and our cloud platform, and we have an opportunity to build some truly innovative solutions for cloud, on premise and hybrid deployments,” Alibaba Cloud VP Jin Li said in a statement.

The deal will see Feng Yu, a principal engineer within Alibaba Cloud, join the MariaDB board, according to a source, although that information wasn’t communicated in the announcement of the funding.

Featured Image: Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images

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Gear up for Disrupt Berlin’s Startup Battlefield and apply today

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One dozen days. That’s how much time you have left to apply for the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2017. If you want to introduce your early-stage company to the world, there’s no better place to do so than from the Startup Battlefield main stage. It’s the premier launching pad for startups, as Battlefield alumni — like Mint, Dropbox, Yammer and TripIt — can attest.

Can competing in Startup Battlefield really launch your business? A quick look at the numbers shows that, as of February 2017, 648 companies that participated in a Battlefield have raised $6.9 billion and generated a total of 95 exits. This is your opportunity to join their ranks.

Here’s how Startup Battlefield works. TechCrunch selects anywhere between 15-30 of the top early-stage startups to vie for a $50,000 check and possession of the Disrupt Cup. And — some say this is the best part of competing in a Battlefield — all participants will benefit from the global media exposure and investor networking opportunities.

Each team gets six minutes to pitch their company and to present a live product demo to the Battlefield judges, who follow up immediately with a rigorous Q&A. In addition to TechCrunch editors, the panel of judges have included in the past names like Eileen Burbidge (Passion Capital), Sonali De Rycker (Accel), Roelof Botha (Sequoia Capital) and Carlos Eduardo Espinal (Seedcamp).

After the first round of pitches, the judges narrow the competing field to approximately 4-6 finalists. Those finalists pitch a second time to a new panel of judges who, along with TechCrunch editors, select the winner and a runner-up.

Startup Battlefield pitches all take place in front of an audience of several thousand people, and they’re live-streamed to a world-wide audience on the TechCrunch homepage. A TechCrunch editor will also write a post about each Battlefield participant during their presentation, and provide participating startups even more exposure to influential media and investors.

If that’s not enough to get you clicking over to the application site, consider this: Applying won’t cost you a thing, and Startup Battlefield contestants also get free tickets to Disrupt Berlin and a free demo booth in Startup Alley.

Startup Battlefield takes place at Disrupt Berlin, December 4-5, 2017 at Arena Berlin, Eichenstraße 412435. Applications are open, and the deadline is September 25 at 5 p.m. PT. You have one dozen days left. Apply here today.

Featured Image: Moment/Getty Images

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Auto giant Continental buys Singapore-based Quantum Inventions for $29M

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German automotive giant Continental is furthering its push into the future of transportation after it got its check book out to acquire Quantum Inventions, a Singapore-based company that specializes in mobility data services.

The deal was announced in June with little fanfare and it is officially undisclosed, but a source told TechCrunch that it is around the SG$40 million mark — that works out to around $29 million. That’s a pretty significant exit — both in name of acquirer and deal size — for Southeast Asia’s nascent yet promising tech ecosystem.

You’d be hard pressed to call Quantum Inventions a startup, although it certainly operating in startup style. The company was founded in 2006, over ten years ago, and it has 120 staff across offices in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is focused on ‘mobility solutions’ in the consumer, automotive and government/enterprise sectors. That’s a fairly broad term but essentially it means managing data to make navigation-related services run smarter and more efficiently.

One example is the work that the company has done in Singapore, where its technology has been used to used to the government develop a new satellite-based Electronic Road Pricing system, which handles tolls, parking and other fees and is designed to ease congestion. Quantum Inventions works with Mitsubishi, which won the project’s tender, to manage the vast data output to glean insight and information.

“Compliance from technical standpoint very important,” Saurav Bhattacharyya, Quantum Inventions CEO, told TechCrunch in an interview. “Human compliance in any kind of system is the main issue, moving towards autonomous or advanced systems you have higher level of compliance and that’s where a central-backed congestion management platform in real-time can get to many places.”

The company doesn’t just focus on smart cities — though that is a strength of Singapore — and its other units touch on enterprise services like fleet management, in-car consumer services, and mobile apps and data such as navigation.

Bhattacharyya said that right now, mobility data is managed in commonly managed in silos, but he said this practice will change in the future as increased usage of the cloud and city planning centralizes data and processes.

The business itself had become profitable with 50 percent compound growth over the past decade, so why sell now when the future is still to come?

Bhattacharyya said the initial plan was to go to market to raise funding, but after being subject to acquisition interest, Quantum Inventions looked at its options. Beyond a financial exit for investors and the team, he said it was drawn to Continental as a partner that can open doors while adding tech and other resources.

“We had a few suitors over the last year, one of the important things for us was to ensure we have a company that knows it takes R&D to stay ahead and have global relationships,” he said. “You can raise $100 million but can’t buy relationships.”

On that latter point, he expects that his company will be able to develop much faster with more resources at its fingertips.

“We come in as a strong engineering fit,” Bhattacharyya added. While the deal “leaves us independent, with the backing of Continental’s global channels — that’s testament to what we have created.”

For now the plan is to continue the business as it is — with an enrichment of resources — but in the future as the market changes, so the business may also shift its focus.

“We will keep our verticals but may align to certain strengths or relationships that Continental has, but still covering automotive and cities. Logistics is very strong and we’ll intend to keep doing that, maybe couple of years down the line makes sense to harmonize platform into one,” he explained.

Continental has been busy brokering deals in Asia lately. It recently announced a joint venture with operator China Unicom focused on transport systems, and it has partnered with Baidu to develop self-driving cars.

“Asia continues to play an ever increasing role in our strategy,” Helmut Matschi, member of the Executive Board at Continental and head of the Interior division, said in a statement. “Now the purchase of Quantum Inventions underline our focus on developing mobility services solutions. We are excited to provide an expanded portfolio of customized solutions in the dynamic mobility services market.”

Featured Image: JKboy Jatenipat/Shutterstock

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