[Update 9PM EDT: Instapaper’s unblocked 9to5Mac, with an apology from Marco Arment: “I’m sorry that I overreacted.”]
If you tried to snag a page from 9to5Mac to read later with Instapaper yesterday, you got this error message:
It’s the first time I’d ever seen a publisher block Instapaper — in fact, Instapaper says, “As of the time of writing, no major publishers have chosen to opt out.” Some publications, like New York Magazine, make it more difficult to use read later services like Instapaper — which pull stripped down, easy-to-read versions of articles from websites and sync them to your smartphone and tablet — by hiding single-page options or preventing you from downloading printer-friendly layouts, but I’d never seen a site put up an explicit error message.
It turns out there is far more to the story, which requires a little backtracking.
Last week, Antisec released 1 million unique device identifiers — think of them as Social Security numbers for Apple devices — that it claimed it pulled, along with 11 million other UDIDs, from a hacked FBI computer. (It turns out this is bullshit; the hacking victim is a company called Blue Toad.) Two questions immediately presented themselves: “Why does the FBI have 12 million UDIDs? How did it get them?”
9to5Mac presented speculation from Hacker News that perhaps the FBI obtained the UDIDs from Instapaper when it took an Instapaper server during an unrelated raid on DigitalOne, which also took down a number of other websites. (Marco Arment, Instapaper’s creator, suspected after the raid that the FBI didn’t copy any of the data from his services.) 9to5Mac also referred to Instapaper as “Instascraper” in the post, and made a joke about sites constantly misspelling Arment’s name by rendering it as “Marcus Armento.”
Sometime after that post, it became no longer possible to save pages from 9to5Mac to Instapaper. Even though the original error message implied 9to5Mac had requested the block, Arment later confirmed on Twitter he proactively blocked 9to5Mac because he believes it “objects” to Instapaper, and that what it’s published about Instapaper is potentially libelous:
The current error message you get when try to save 9to5Mac has since been updated to be more generic:
The incident raises an ugly specter, the possibility that Instapaper will block any site or publication that’s deeply critical of it or Arment, and 9to5Mac would be far from the first site to object to read later services. By that reading, one of my favorite sites, The Awl — from which I Instapaper things constantly — clearly objects to Instapaper and other read later services with an article titled “‘Read It Later’: Republishing is Theft.” Choire Sicha even namechecks Instapaper specifically, stating, “It was pointed out early on that Instapaper is, at best, copyright infringement.” I’ve never seen a more clear objection to Instapaper from a site I read. Will Instapaper block it, too?
Arment told me via email that wasn’t the case:
…I really don’t foresee doing this for any other site unless they explicitly request it.
What 9to5 has consistently written about me and Instapaper goes far beyond what’s acceptable, is potentially libelous, and could cause potential legal issues. This has never happened to this degree from any other site, and would certainly never happen from a professionally run publication.
I will not tolerate their behavior or the potential legal risks of interacting with 9to5 or Seth at all, so I removed the ability for Instapaper to interact with their site.
This is a tiny incident, involving one site and just one of a handful of read later services, but the implications are striking, because this model of reading the web — free of the constraints of time or place or device — seems to have legitimate legs. The model is powerful — even if Instapaper and Pocket specifically remain niche services, it seems like they’re the beginning of something much bigger. The thing is, these services are brand new territory, and there are a lot of brand new questions that come along with them — including, most critically, how they fit in with copyright and publishers’ rights. For services that seem so brilliant in their simplicity, there’s an awful lot of complexity that surrounds them, and people — particularly in the publishing industry — are going to say nasty things about them.
And what if Instapaper was much bigger than it is, so that it blocked 9to5Mac from many, many millions of subscribers (of which I am one)? What if it did this to the New York Times after it wrote something Arment found potentially libelous? (Question for lawyers: Is what 9to5Mac wrote libelous?) The fact that I can still save 9to5Mac with Pocket and Readability conjures visions of a horrible world where read later services look more like Netflix and Hulu — you need one service to read The New Yorker, and another to read Wired, either because of exclusive contracts or because somebody said something bad about a service. (Update: Rival service Pocket decided to comment: “Pocket is not, and never will be, in the business of telling users what they can and cannot save. We work very closely with publishers and want to create the best possible experience for both users and publishers.”) It’s not a world I want to live in. I just want to read pretty things.
So it’s unfortunate that these are even questions now. There are enough unanswered questions about read later services that we didn’t need another, hulking monster of an issue lurking in the shadows.