What a cheep shot: Bird sorry after legal eagles fire DMCA takedown at scooter unlock blog

EFF slams bad eggs for trying to censor instructions on how to unlock gizmos from app

Bird has apologized for sending a legal threat to a blogger who outlined how its scooters-for-hire – those electric gizmos littering city streets – can have their motherboards replaced to unlock them from their app, and driven away.

Back in December, journalist Cory Doctorow received a takedown request [PDF] for a blog post on Boing Boing in which he referenced and linked to a post on a different website, Hackaday, that outlined how replacement motherboards for Bird's network of scooters can be sourced online for $30 and used to take control of the machine.

Bird's scooters are Chinese-made Xiaomi MIJIA M365 machines and the company has added its own software and some additional hardware in order to make them part of a larger fleet that can be hired on demand through a smartphone app.

But due to the company's – and its competitors' – decision to flood cities with their machines without seeking prior authorization from local authorities, there has been considerable pushback against the machines, which have been left abandoned in a huge number of inconvenient locations, such as bus stops, on sidewalks and on private property.

Cities have been impounding the scooters in response, and the scooter companies have seemingly decided that's just the cost of doing businesses, with little effort made to retrieve them. With the cost of retrieval now likely higher than the cost of the scooters themselves (roughly $400 a unit), many expect the scooters to be sold at auction for prices well below their market cost.

Which is where the $30 motherboard comes in: by replacing the machines' electronic guts, it is possible to make the scooter fully functional. And without Bird's software or hardware add-ons the scooter won't need authorization and won't link to the internet. Result: a $400 scooter for $100.

Unsurprisingly, Bird is not excited about this information being widely known, especially since it is possible – although illegal - to do the same all its scooters, which are, by design, left in public places.

Legal threats

Not that many people read Hackaday but Boing Boing is a different matter and so Bird's lawyers sent a nastygram – a DMCA takedown request – insisting that Doctorow was doing a range of illegal things in his blog post, including "promoting the use and sale of an illegal product that violates Bird’s copyright and other rights."

It insisted that Boing Boing "immediately takedown this offensive blog and terminate the user’s account for violation of Boing Boing’s Terms of Service."

It's safe to assume that Bird's lawyers didn't know much about Doctorow or Boing Boing beforehand and were simply sending cease and desist letters to any site that was talking about the $30 replacement motherboards.

But they soon found out when Doctorow reached out to colleagues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - where he is a special adviser - who sent a tersely worded response on Friday in which they pointed out a number of holes in Bird's argument.

The letter points out, among other things, that it is perfectly possible to legally acquire a Bird scooter – after the company has failed to retrieve it from an impound – and that a new motherboard is not illegal and does not circumvent Bird's technology but simply substitutes it.

It essence, it notes: "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."

So, um, sorry?

In short, it wasn't a smart move on Bird's part to threaten a journalist and use flimsy legal arguments to try to pressure them to remove information it didn't like. To its credit, Bird recognized that fact pretty fast. It received the EFF's response on Friday and this morning – Monday – dropped it and issued an apology.

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"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," it said.

Of course implicit within the apology is the fact that the company may have sent out many more legal threats to people without megaphones and EFF contacts to try to remove any mention of legal products from the internet.

With the information out there that people can basically steal existing scooters for $30 and a bit of effort, it remains to be seen whether people will stop throwing them in lakes and trashing them in favor of a more illegal approach of repurposing them. ®

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