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Instapaper’s 9to5Mac vendetta, or why news curators need to tread carefully

instapaper iconLast week’s UDID madness was plagued by plenty of rumor-mongering: The FBI, Apple, and Anonymous were all at some point alleged to be responsible for the leak, with smaller entities falling under the finger of blame along the way – including Instapaper.

Of course, it turns out that it was BlueToad, a small Florida publishing company, which claims to have experienced a security breach that led to the UDID leak. But that confession is almost being overshadowed by the drama that has following the Instapaper accusation, denial, and subsequent payback.

Before BlueToad came forward to admit its part in the mass UDID leak, the Internet was under the impression that the IDs had come from a hacked FBI computer – which caused us all to simultaneously ask “Wait… why does the FBI have all these UDIDs?” And one of the suggested answers was that an Instapaper server snagged a year ago by the FBI had that data.

The hypothesis first appeared on Hacker News, and then 9to5Mac picked up on it.

And then Instapaper blocked its users from pulling content from 9toMac to the reader app.

Actually, there’s more – it all comes back to the fact that these two organizations have had ongoing differences. Instapaper creator Marco Arment has had an ax to grind with 9toMac for awhile now (check out the Tweet below): He took exception to the site calling his company “Instascraper,” the two engaged in some jabs about the misspelling of his name, and of course – and justifiably – the implication that Instapaper was tied to a massive UDID leak.

marco arment twitter

All of that is why Instapaper dropped 9to5Mac integration. First, users were greeted by this message.

instapaper no access

And then this one, after 9to5Mac pointed out it actually hadn’t requested Instapaper pull its content (something all publishers are able to do if they don’t want the reader app grabbing their work).

second instapaper no access

Before things could escalate much further, however, Arment issued a swift explanation and apology for the choice.

“With my anger about the FBI implication, and my fear about how they might behave legally in the future, I overreacted,” he wrote on his personal blog this morning. “I did what I could, albeit embarrassingly after civil attempts failed, to try to get 9to5Mac to correct their FBI statements. That’s all I really could do short of pursuing a libel claim, which I thought would be overkill. But regarding legal ‘scraper’ concern, I thought that safest course of action for Instapaper’s long-term health was to block Instapaper from fetching 9to5Mac’s pages.”

Arment goes on to say this was an “overreaction” and that it was “inappropriate to add a publisher to the opt-out list that did not explicitly request it.”

By all accounts, the matter has been laid to rest and all will return to normal. People will continue to read 9to5Mac and people will continue to use Instapaper. But there’s something disturbing here that deserves a little more attention, and that’s the fact that these curation, aggregation-focused apps can and will rule with an iron first.

pew reportA recent Pew Research Center report found that the impact of news curation and reader services is rapidly growing. According to the report, 29 percent of U.S. adults who get news on a digital device do so using a news organizing site or app – compared to 36 percent who go directly to a Website. That’s a lot of business proprietary publishers are handing over to these outside services. Not that they have much of a choice: Consumers have taken to this model and then some. People want to create their own one-stop shops for online content consumption, and publishers need to be a part of that if they want those eyeballs.

Of course, this means they aren’t getting said eyeballs to their own sites – their own sites with their own ads, their own revenue. It’s exactly why Twitter has been tightening its grip on its API lately. It’s a boon and a beast: The growing popularity of these news reader services mean consumers are reading, and that’s something every Web publisher wants, and needs to participate in. But you give up control and, honestly, money, and nobody likes that. Again, it’s a necessary evil of how media and the Internet work; there’s a lot of legal gray area here, which is to be expected when the collective media and online community are evolving the way this all works as we go along.  

Even though I’m a writer for Digital Trends and I want as many people to read our site – and to do it here­ – I also respect users enough to want them to consume this content any way they want. The problem in all this is that Instapaper just gave us a glimpse at what can happen when you cross a company that controls the pipeline. It’s part of the evolution of search and SEO, which are constantly changing, and you want to believe that personal politics won’t play a part – but we just all saw that they can.

If this is the way that new media is going – and all signs point to that being the case – then users need to be able to have unequivocal trust in their reader apps. And for that matter, publishers need to question the apps pulling (or not pulling, as the case may be) their product. We’ve long questioned and tried to wrap our heads around how Google ranks Websites and news outlets, and now it’s time to adapt. If Google had buried every site that made snide comments about the company, we’d all be in an uproar – and there’s no reason that reader apps don’t deserve the same reaction now. 

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