Bloglines and the Perils of Syndication

Martin Schwimmer (The Trademark Blog) posts an interesting discussion about why he doesn’t allow his RSS feed to be carried by bloglines. Bloglines bills itself as “the most comprehensive, integrated service for searching, subscribing, publishing and sharing news feeds, blogs, and rich Web content.” Or, in other words, it aggregates different weblogs and other sources that publish in RSS format so that a reader can get all their selected information from one website.

Although many people use “offline” RSS aggregators like Straw for GNU/Linux and SharpReader for Windows (I don’t know what OS X people use), for people who don’t access the web through a single computer all the time, a “free” website that performs this aggregating service sounds like a good idea.

The problem, Schwimmer points out, is that Bloglines has a business plan. And that business plan has been described by at least one analyst as AdWords on Steroids. Bloglines plans to use weblog content written by other people for data mining and targeted advertising, without the writer’s permission.

This doesn’t sit well with me. First, as an online privacy advocate (despite my recent outing of two anonymous U-Haul commentors), I’d rather not provide grist for data collection and profiling, especially where the readers are quite unlikely to realize what is happening. Second, I have no control over the content of the ads that might surround my blog. Google AdWords has provoked a lot of controversy (not to mention several lawsuits) by selling trigger words to advertisers that include competitor’s trademarks. I think Google is probably right, both legally and in terms of commercial ethics, in that scenario—consumers searching for ‘Nike shoes’ might in fact benefit from a link to New Balance with the description ‘New Balance shoes are cheaper and better quality!’, and aren’t likely to be confused about the source or origin of what they’re getting.

I am less comfortable with the idea that there might be ads surrounding my weblog entries for porn, online gambling, or worse — legal services. Unlike the Google AdWords example, in that case Bloglines (or another commercial aggregator/data miner) would be using the fruits of my own labor in a way that might associate me with entities I do not want to endorse or that might be in direct commercial competition with me. It’s fairly intuitive to think that not only does an advertiser endorse particular content, but that the creator of that content at least nominally endorses the advertiser. This is why political magazines like Ms. Magazine did not accept advertising for many years (although they do, within certain limits, now).

Finally, from an economic perspective, it seems to me that Bloglines would be profiting without really doing anything productive or creative: the only value-added is the advertising itself, and perhaps the aggregation feature, but that is available for free without advertising from other sources.

It’s useful to compare the function of commercial Linux distributors like SuSE and Red Hat with Bloglines. The commercial Linux distributors take free content, package it, certify it in some way, support it, help fix bugs, provide a “bricks and mortar” infrastructure for getting the product out there, all requiring a substantial input of resources. To take blog content and put ads around it, on the other hand, requires almost no creative (or other) resources. I suppose they are providing some bandwidth that might be useful if the blog publisher is short on that, but a better solution in that case would be for the blog publisher to run ads themselves and use the money to pay for more bandwidth.

Presently it appears that I have seven or eight Bloglines subscribers. I won’t be cutting them off any time soon, but I am considering licensing my blog enter a noncommercial Creative Commons license that should prohibit the kind of data mining and advertising that Bloglines is planning with content I create. Although I think that kind of license is inappropriate for most software (and certainly doesn’t comply with the Debian Free Software Guidelines) I think it might be the only way to avoid some of the consequences discussed above.