Scooter startup Bird tried to silence a journalist. It did not go well.

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 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 bite-size form 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. Of those who responded, all said 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.

Two hours after we published this story, Bird spokesperson Rebecca Hahn said the company supports freedom of speech, adding: “In the quest for curbing illegal activities related to our vehicles, our legal team overstretched and sent a takedown request related to the issue to a member of the media. This was our mistake and we apologize to Cory Doctorow.”

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 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 more than 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 researchers.

That effort resulted in several companies — notably Dropbox 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.

Updated at 6pm ET: with statement from Bird.

Stock markets suffer their worst Christmas Eve trading day

Twas the last trading day before Christmas, and on the trading floor,
Most stocks were falling, and then falling some more,
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin all the banks had called,
In hopes that full coffers were still in their vaults.

The analysts were shaken by news of the call,
which initially caused the stock market to fall,
Then President Trump took to Twitter, to blame the Federal Reserve,
Which was something the Fed chairman just didn’t deserve.

So banks and traders rushed to their phones with a clatter,
Causing stock market value further to shatter,
Markets don’t like decisions made in a flash,
And criticizing sound economic policy can exacerbate a crash.

Mnuchin made his call with banks from a tropical isle,
and analysts criticized his decision’s lack of guile,
They were more concerned with policy stupidity,
Since there’s already enough administrative volatility.
Like threatening to oust the chairman of the Federal Reserve,
Someone whose position it would be better to preserve.

So now the Dow has fallen some 653 points,
And doctors may advise traders to light up their joints,
Because U.S. indices are on track for their worst December,
Since the 1930s, which almost no one alive remembers.

Mobile bank Chime picks up credit score improvement service Pinch in all-stock deal

Chime, the no-fees mobile bank valued at $500 million as of its last round, has put some of its funds to use with its first acquisition. The deal is for Pinch, a startup that was focused on helping millennials and other young adults build better credit. It was best known for a service called PinchRent, which allowed users to increase their credit scores over time by reporting on-time rent payments to credit bureaus.

Millennials can sometimes struggle to improve their credit, or are uneducated about what their credit scores mean, studies have shown. And like any younger demographic, they may also be afflicted with shorter credit histories, which impacts those scores, too.

Many in this age group have said that their low credit scores are holding them back, and millennials prefer debit to credit, Visa has reported.

Pinch’s focus was to provide a different way for its users to increase their scores, rather than simply using credit cards or making loan payments on time.

It did this by aggregating the information on rent payments and submitting that to the credit bureaus. (The bureaus can take rental information, but they don’t work with individual landlords. That’s where Pinch came in.)

Since its founding in 2016, more than 80% of people on its service increased their scores from 10 to 100 points.

The startup was preparing to announce a $1.8 million seed round of funding from Homebrew and Collaborative ahead of its acquisition.

Pinch had only been in beta testing prior to joining Chime, and was also planning to do a full public launch. Instead, it shut down its service by alerting users via email that its last day of business would be June 27, 2018.

At the time of the service’s closure, it was in talks with Chime. But the deal itself only closed this Tuesday, we understand.

Chime declined to share the deal terms, but noted it’s an all-stock transaction and investors were happy.

The acquisition includes Pinch’s core team (5-10 people, depending on how the offers play out) plus founders Maia Bittner and Michael Ducker, who will now help the mobile bank launch credit and lending products over the next six months.

Bittner previously co-founded subscription startup Rocksbox, and worked as a Sequoia Capital scout. Ducker, meanwhile, hailed from Microsoft and Twitter before starting Pinch.

Chime, whose user base is 90% millennials, may or may not relaunch Pinch’s rent-paying service, but it will be soon moving into credit.

“I think, particularly, post the 2008 crisis, there’s been just a general distrust of big banks. But also, people have seen how the amount of credit [they have] can create challenges in their life,” says Chime CEO Chris Britt, discussing the struggles its users face in terms of building their credit.

“And younger consumers are so saddled with with student loan debt that the last thing they want to do is get more debt on a credit card,” he adds, explaining why young people turn to debit cards.

He says Chime’s goal now is to helping serve this group’s needs around credit with a set of millennial-focused products.

“The reality is the typical debit card and checking account do nothing to build your credit score. So as we think about the future set of products that we want to roll out, we’re very focused on helping our members with that part of their life,” he adds.

Chime is now one of several millennial-focused mobile banks on the market, which do away with traditional banking fees as well as brick-and-mortar location. Others like Simple and Stash are also available, but Chime has raised over $110 million, making it the largest in terms of funding.

The company today also shared new numbers – it says it has over 1.7 million bank accounts on its platform, and is opening more than 150,000 accounts per month – in line with Wells Fargo. It expects to surpass 2 million bank accounts and $10 billion in total transaction volume by year-end.

Further down the road, Chime may venture into investing, but not until its user base is ready.

“So we’re very deliberate in how we think about helping our members along their financial journey. We start with the checking account, we make sure you’re paying all your bills, then we make sure you have a savings account balance – because you should have a savings account balance before you start day trading,” Britt says.

“It’s sort of irresponsible to be encouraging day trading if you don’t have the financial means…I think investment accounts and retirement accounts come first,” he notes.