from the never-use-what3words dept
A pair years we wrote about What3Words, and famous that it was a intelligent system that created a straightforward option to permit folks to higher share actual areas in an simply communicated method (each little bit of the globe might be described with simply 3 phrases — so one thing like best.tech.blog is a tiny plot close to Hanover, Ontario). Whereas a part of this simply seems like enjoyable, a key a part of the corporate’s advertising message is that the system is beneficial in emergency conditions the place somebody wants to speak a really actual location shortly and simply.
Nonetheless, as we famous in our article, as neat and intelligent as the thought is, it is very, very proprietary, and that might result in critical issues for anybody utilizing it. In our article, we wrote a few bunch of the reason why What3Words and its closed nature might result in issues — together with the truth that the earth just isn’t static and issues transfer round on a regular basis, such that these 3 phrase identifiers could not truly stay correct. However there have been different issues as effectively.
And, apparently a type of issues is that they are censorial authorized bullies. Zach Whittaker has the unlucky story of how What3Words unleashed its legal threat monkeys on a safety researcher named Aaron Toponce. Toponce had been working with another safety researchers who had been highlighting some potentially dangerous flaws within the What3Words system past these we had talked about a number of years again. The important thing drawback was that some very related 3 phrase combos have been very shut to at least one one other, such that somebody counting on them in an emergency might threat sending folks to the improper location.
The corporate insists that this is rare, however the analysis (primarily accomplished by researcher Andrew Tierney) indicates otherwise. He appeared to seek out a reasonably large variety of related 3 phrase combos close to one another. You’ll be able to actually see this when Tierney maps out some intently associated phrase combos:
When this occurs, you get cells with these offset areas *very* intently matched.
We will see that the row above the banding has a “q” (the worth on “n” on the decrease left) that’s roughly 14,560,000 decrease than the cell beneath. pic.twitter.com/pYumzdxyTh
— Cybergibbons (@cybergibbons) April 27, 2021
In a observe up article, Tierney detailed a bunch of examples where this confusion could be dangerous. A few of them are actually placing. Here is only one:
“I believe I’m having a coronary heart assault. I’m strolling at North Mountain Park. Deep Pinks Begin.” – 1053m.
(Attempt studying each out)
Anyway, Toponce had been tweeting about Tierney’s findings, and talked about WhatFreeWords, which had been “an open-source, compatible implementation of the What3Words geocoding algorithm.” It was a reverse engineered model of the proprietary What3Words system. That software was created again in 2019, however per week after it went on-line, What3Words legal professionals despatched incredibly overbroad takedown letters about it to everybody who had something even remotely related to WhatFreeWords, and had it pulled offline principally in every single place.
First up: that is ridiculous. Whereas reverse engineering is sadly fraught with authorized threat, there are a lot of areas by which it is perfectly legal. And it looks like WhatFreeWords implementation needs to be authorized. Nevertheless it appeared to have been a enjoyable aspect undertaking, and never definitely worth the authorized headache.
Although WhatFreeWords was disappeared from the world in late 2019, it seems that Toponce nonetheless had a few of the code. So in tweeting about Tierney’s analysis, he provided up the software to researchers to assist examine extra issues with What3Words, just like what Tierney had discovered.
And that is when What3Words’ legal professionals pounced. And, in pouncing, the mere chilling results of the authorized menace labored:
I have been served authorized threats by @what3words. Each by way of e mail and put up.
I’m complying with all their calls for. This isn’t a battle price preventing.
Simply let it’s recognized nonetheless, they’re evil.
— Aaron Toponce ⚛️ (@AaronToponce) April 30, 2021
Toponce additionally admits he could not even sleep after receiving the menace letter. That is an underappreciated side of the insanely litigious nature of many censorial bullies lately. Even should you’re in the fitting, getting sued might be fully harmful. Toponce was attempting to assist safety researchers higher analysis an software that’s promoted for being secure and safety researchers ought to be allowed to utilize reverse engineering to do precisely that. However, What3Words and their bullying legal professionals made positive that is not possible.
To be honest to their bullying legal professionals, the menace letter just isn’t as aggressive as some others, they usually even make it express that they aren’t searching for that Toponce cease criticizing the corporate:
On this connection, and to be clear, our shopper doesn’t require the deletion of your criticism of and suggestions in respect of its service.
However… it nonetheless makes fairly stringent calls for.
i) delete all copies of “What Free Phrases” and some other works by-product of W3W’s software program and wordlist presently in your possession or below your management;
ii) affirm, to the most effective of your information, the identities of all events / people to whom you might have offered copies or derivations of the software program and/or wordlist;
iii) agree that you’ll not sooner or later make additional copies or derivations of and/or distribute copies or derivations of the software program and/or wordlist;
iv) delete any Tweets or different on-line references made to the copies / derivations of our shopper’s software program and wordlist and which can be related with or emanate from the “What Free Phrases”, and agree to not make related representations sooner or later.
In fact, there are some questions on what mental property is definitely being infringed upon right here as effectively. When the corporate’s legal professionals obtained the unique WhatFreeWords web site taken down, they claimed copyright and trademark rights, although terribly broadly. They declare their very own software program is roofed by copyright, however WhatFreeWords is not utilizing their software program. In addition they declare that each one the three phrase combos are coated by copyright and… eh… it is likely to be within the UK the place W3W is predicated, however within the US, it could be tougher to say that three random phrase combos are inventive sufficient to get a copyright. Additionally, within the US there could be a powerful honest use protection. Sadly, within the UK, there’s a ridiculous idea generally known as “database rights” that allow you to declare a proper over a mere assortment of issues, even if in case you have no declare to the underlying rights. However, even so, evidently there needs to be a good use protection right here. The UK has a good dealing exception for analysis and personal examine, which looks like it ought to apply as effectively.
As for the trademark claims, effectively, nobody’s going to get confused about it, because it’s fairly clear that WhatFreeWords was designed explicitly to not be from What3Words, and on this specific case, it isn’t being provided broadly, simply to educated safety researchers. Much more insane: the unique menace letter over WhatFreeWords claimed that there could possibly be prison penalties for violating shopper safety legal guidelines, and that is simply insane.
Nonetheless, as Mike Dunford notes in his thread about this case, W3W’s choice to deal with locking up and threatening everybody maybe explains why so few folks learn about or use What3Words. Think about if they’d constructed this as an open software that others might construct on and incorporate into different choices. Then they may have others experiment and innovate and get extra folks to undertake it. By making it proprietary, and locking it down with threats and asshole legal professionals, there’s merely no motive to hassle.
The one correct response to that is by no means, ever use What3Words for something that issues. Past not giving in to censorial, abusive bullies, their authorized response to a safety researcher doing reverse engineering work to assist discover probably harmful issues with What3Words screams loudly to the world that What3Words has no confidence that it is merchandise are secure. They’re scared to loss of life of safety researchers having the ability to actually check their work.
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