The function -- a sequel of sorts to the old-school method of traditional comment sections on stories and transcripts -- lets anyone with a Genius account go into a document, highlight a section of text and post their personal thoughts or observations on it for others to view and comment on, with or without the original author's consent.
After some critics claimed the function was leading to some harassment and intimidation of authors -- including one blogger who said a Genius moderator responded to her concerns with the comment, "but your blog is public!" after her attempts to disable the Genius annotation on her site -- Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark wrote a letter to Genius expressing concern over the "lack of safeguards against Internet harassment and abuse."
In the letter to Genius CEO Tom Lehman on Tuesday, Clark applauded the site's ability to allow any user to post content on news stories, political speeches and lyrics, calling it a "powerful tool to educate, clarify and provide context." But she worried that it could also be used to "harass, intimidate and silence."
The latter, she said, has led some sites to start more rigorously moderating comments, pre-approving comments or eliminating user-generated content altogether. "Yet with Genius, malicious users can now circumvent those safeguards and inject their comments directly into protected content," she wrote, adding that this is "particularly troubling" because it makes it appear that Genius has opted-in websites without getting their express consent and doesn't have an obvious opt-out function or a way to report abusive comments.
Lehman responded a few hours later saying that while the Web Annotator was intended to offer a layer of "context, commentary and criticism" on any web page, like any such platform, it has the potential for abuse. "However, we want to be clear that Genius does not enable abuse," he said.
"This is a false narrative that has taken hold on Twitter and other outlets," he wrote, pointing to Genius' "strict policy" against abuse, which allows anyone feeling harassed to report their situation to a moderator or staff member. The site's community policy also notes that every notation on the Web Annotator tool has a "Report Abuse" button that allows anyone to flag an annotation for review by moderators and staff, with abusers subject to losing their account privileges.
As Slate reported, "the Web Annotator tool could be a great facilitator for creating dialog about stories in the press that may contain bias or misinformation. But the tool also works with the personal blogosphere, so it doesn’t matter if you’re affiliated with a mainstream publication -- as long as you are posting content publicly, your work is subject to the tool." That includes overriding content providers' attempts to limit unsolicited feedback by disabling comments.
In the response to Rep. Clark -- who has long campaigned against online harassment -- Lehman added that to date the Genius community has tagged @genius-moderation on annotations to report abuse and that method has worked well. "In addition, a Genius staff member reads every annotation created with the Genius Web Annotator."
The letter ended by pointing to a new feature added this week: a button on any annotation that instantly allows users to report abuse. A spokesperson for Genius had not returned Billboard's requests for additional comment at press time.