Godwin’s Law: Now With Seals

The wikipedia page with the FBI seal (if it is still there)

John Schwartz at NYT:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken on everyone from Al Capone to John Dillinger to the Unabomber. Its latest adversary: Wikipedia.

The bureau wrote a letter in July to the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia, demanding that it take down an image of the F.B.I. seal accompanying an article on the bureau, and threatened litigation: “Failure to comply may result in further legal action. We appreciate your timely attention to this matter.”

The problem, those at Wikipedia say, is that the law cited in the F.B.I.’s letter is largely about keeping people from flashing fake badges or profiting from the use of the seal, and not about posting images on noncommercial Web sites. Many sites, including the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, display the seal.

Other organizations might simply back down. But Wikipedia sent back a politely feisty response, stating that the bureau’s lawyers had misquoted the law. “While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version” that the F.B.I. had provided.

Michael Godwin, the general counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation, wrote, “we are prepared to argue our view in court.” He signed off, “with all appropriate respect.”

Samuel Axon at Mashable:

The New York Times posted PDF documents of the FBI’s takedown request [PDF] and Wikipedia General Counsel Mike Godwin’s bold and catty reply [PDF].The FBI said the Wikimedia Foundation is breaking the law by showing the bureau’s seal in the FBI entry on its website, and that the seal is primarily intended as a means of identification for FBI representatives. Godwin countered by accusing the FBI’s Deputy General Counsel David C. Larson of selectively omitting words from the supposedly applicable law.

Specifically, he said that the letter of the law applies only to things similar to badges, and the spirit of the law is simply to prevent people from posing as government authorities — something Wikipedia (Wikipedia) is clearly not doing. He also implied that the FBI is trying to revise the law because of its hawkish concern that people will rip the image from the site and use it for nefarious purposes.

He assured Larson that the Wikimedia Foundation is prepared to go to court to defend its use of the seal if that’s what it takes.

Godwin’s letter is humorous for its directness, but it’s also funny for being passive-aggressive. For example, he says:

“Entertainingly, in support for your argument, you included a version of 701 in which you removed the very phrases that subject the statute to ejusdem generis analysis. While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version of Section 701 that you forwarded to us.”

Godwin is already famous as the creator of Godwin’s Law, which states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1,” so this is definitely in-character for him.

Steven Taylor:

In looking at the law, I can see a reading going to either side.  However, it does seem to be more oriented towards either stopping counterfeit badges and/or people making money by making duplicates.  It does not appear to be oriented toward stopping an informational outlet from publishing such information.

At a minimum, I have to agree with the following:

Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the dust-up both “silly” and “troubling”; Wikipedia has a First Amendment right to display the seal, she said.

“Really,” she added, “I have to believe the F.B.I. has better things to do than this.”

Indeed.

Nicholas Deleon at Crunch Gear:

Wikipedia’s counsel recognizes that there are restrictions in place regarding the display of the seal, but that “the enactment of [these laws] was intended to protect the public against the use of a recognisable assertion of authority with intent to deceive.”

And if you think Wikipedia is trying to deceive to deceive the public with the presence of a seal in an encyclopedic article, I don’t know what to tell you.

The one thing that I may see some wiggle room: the high resolution of the seal. You can get the seal in sizes of up to 2000px, so maybe Wikipedia can tell the Feds, “Look, we’re keep the seal, but we’ll kick the resolution down to, say, 500px. Deal?”

Hopefully cooler heads prevail here.

Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing:

The part that’s hard to understand is why the FBI would seek to abuse the law in such petulant fashion, knowing that it will be subject to public ridicule for its actions.

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair

Jim Newell at Gawker:

The FBI is definitely going to raid their offices, like, tonight.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Technology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s