Reply to The ethics of syndicating comments using WebMentions

In his blog post “The ethics of syndicating comments using WebMentions”, Terence Eden said:

I want to see what people are writing in public about my posts. I also want to direct people to the conversations which are happening elsewhere on the web. But people – quite rightly – might not want their content permanently stored by my site.

So I think I have a few options.

  1. Do nothing. My site; my rules. If you don’t want me to grab your hot takes, don’t post them in public. (Feels a bit rude, TBQH.)
  2. Be reactive. If someone asks me to remove their content, do so. (But, of course, how will they know I’ve made a copy?)
  3. Stop syndicating comments. (I don’t wanna!)
  4. Replace the verbatim comments with a link saying “Fred mentioned this article on Twitter” . (A bit of a disruptive experience for readers.)
  5. Use oEmbed to capture the user’s comment and dynamically load it from the 3rd party site. That would update automatically if the user changes their name or deleted the comment. (A massive faff to set up.)

Terence describes a problem that I’ve wrestled with myself. If somebody comments directly on my blog using the form at the bottom of a post, that’s a pretty strong indicator of them giving their consent for their comment to be published at the bottom of that post (at my discretion). If somebody publicly replies somewhere my post is syndicated, that’s less-obvious, but still pretty clear. If somebody merely mentions my post publicly, writing their own post and linking to mine… that’s a real fuzzy area.

I take a minimal approach; only capturing their full content if it’s short and otherwise trying to extract a snippet that contains the bit that mentioned my content, and I think that works great. But Terence points out an important follow-up: what if the commenter deletes that content?

My approach so far has always been a reactive one – the second in Terence’s list – and I think it’s a morally-acceptable stance for a personal blogger. But I’m not sure it scales. I find myself asking: what if a news outlet did this, taking my self-published feedback to their story and publishing it on their site, even if I later amended, retracted, or deleted it on my own? If somebody’s making money out of my content, that feels different: I’ve always been clear that what I write on my blog is permissively-licensed, but that permissiveness is based on the prohibition of commercial use of my content.

Perhaps down the line this can be solved technologically: something machine-readable akin to the <link rel="license" ...> tag could state an author’s preference for how their content is syndicated by third parties they’ve mentioned, answering questions like:

  • Can you quote me, or just link to me? Who do these rules apply to? (Should we be attaching metadata to individual links?)
  • Should you inform me that you’ve done so, and if so: how (WebMention, etc.)?
  • If you (or your site) observe that my content has disappeared or changed for an extended time, should that be taken as revokation of consent to syndicate it?

Right now, the relevant technologies are not well-established enough to even begin this kind of work, but if a modern interconected federated web of personal websites takes off, it’s the kind of question we might one day have to answer.

For now my gut feeling is that option #2 (reactive moderation of syndicated comments) is ethically-sufficient for personal websites. But I’ll be watching the feedback Terence (who probably gets many more readers than I) receives in case my gut doesn’t represent the majority!

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