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Is Tumblr Protecting Its Users From the Big, Bad Internet?

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, January 3 2012

Tumblr, the microblogging platform, recently flexed its ability to reach a broad user base in order to spread a political message: The Stop Online Piracy Act, a piece of legislation that would require some Internet infrastructure providers to essentially block access to websites finding themselves on the wrong end of a court order, would be bad for the Internet.

To do so, the company set up a modal that appeared in front of any user after log-in. That overlay explained Tumblr's case and gave users a chance to take action. Recently, TheNextWeb reports, Tumblr used a similar method in order to urge people to uninstall a popular browser extension the company says poses risks to its users.

The browser extension, Missing e, has over 275,000 users on Chrome and almost 25,000 on Firefox, according to its official add-on pages for each browser. It modifies the look and feel of Tumblr to add several new features — something that Tumblr has taken issue with for months and which Mashable noted in a pretty comprehensive tick-tock in August. This puts Tumblr, known for its stance on SOPA as a champion of user rights, in a bit of an awkward position: In this case, it's the entity seeking to block access to a popular and by all accounts useful piece of software.

The result, it seems, is a return to the age-old tension between users' desire to get more out of a platform than it was designed to offer and a platform's need to control its product. We've seen it with Twitter, Dave Winer notes, we've seen it with Facebook, and now we're seeing it with Tumblr.

"We've noticed you're using a browser hack, Missing-E, that can cause serious problems for you and for Tumblr," the new modal that appeared on Tumblr reads, according to a screenshot passed to TheNextWeb by one of their readers. "While we love encouraging developers to customize and build off our platform, the unsupported methods being used here create risks to your data, interfere with our ability to develop and scale Tumblr, and create a huge burden for our support team."

In an email, Tumblr spokesman Katherine Barna explains:

On this issue, we encourage developers to customize and build off our platform. However, there are significant concerns around data loss, privacy, and performance regarding the missing-e extension, which is why we recommend users uninstall. Because of these issues, our support team is frequently flooded with reports of problems that we didn't cause and can't fix. Users may continue to use the plug-in that missing-e provides, but Tumblr will not be able to provide technical support if they do.

Cutler, for his part, reiterates that Missing e is safe.

"Tumblr’s warning message mentions issues that are the worst-case scenario for any browser modification," he writes in a recent post on — where else — his personal Tumblr. "Missing e does not collect private information or cause data loss. I simply feel that Tumblr is highlighting the worst possibilities in an effort to frighten less technically-minded users to uninstall."

The code for his extension, he adds, is available on Github for anyone to audit to their own satisfaction.

"Presumably it's only an issue because a fair number of their users want to use it," RSS creator Dave Winer wrote in a post from Dec. 31 about this situation. "So they are taking issue not only with the developer, but with the users. They have admitted that the problem is that they must 'educate' their users better. Oy! Does this sound familiar. In the end, it will be the other way around. It has to be. It's the lesson of the Internet."

Winer then situates Tumblr's move as part of an ongoing struggle between users doing what they want to do and tech industry players trying to limit their freedom of movement. "It's the Internet," he explains, "vs the Un-Internet."

That appeals to Cluetrain Manifesto co-author and all-around Internet person Doc Searls, who writes that this should be the year companies like Tumblr decide the best thing to do is set users free.

"I believe 2012 will be the year that Net-based companies (which are most of them at this point) will discover that free customers are more valuable than captive ones," he writes.

Tumblr has already bought into the idea that government should not be restricting users' rights to remix content — but seems to draw the line at its right to control access to content on its own platform.

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