This is Violet Blue’s story, and all I know about it is contained in this tweet by her:

I hope and imagine that once she’s done the reporting, it will form the basis of one of her excellent columns for ZDnet.

However, I have some observations.

First, I don’t like shortlinks, never have. They always struck me as a bad idea because they obscure the link target. Every click on a shortened link is a leap into the unknown.

Shortlinks, if you didn’t know, are online services that take a long link and translate it into a much shorter one. Then they maintain a database of the translations and when anybody hits the short link, they are directed to the service, which provides the long link and forwards the surfer onward to that long link destination.

But what happens if the shortener service goes bankrupt, is acquired and shut down, is destroyed by circumstances beyond its control, decides to stop faithfully forwarding some or all links, or is compelled by judicial process or shadowy official menace to stop faithfully forwarding links?

These problems — at least one of which is inevitable in the fullness of time — are behind my second and third objections to link shorteners.

In the long enough run, every shortened link will be broken, even if the site that used it and the site it pointed to are both still there by some miracle. The connection will be lost to history, and lots of broken links in web archives and such will be obscure that would not be obscure if the original, long, somewhat informative link had been used instead. This is a big enough problem that Jason Scot’s Archive Team maintains an always-on spidering project that’s attempting to preserve the destinations of as many shortened links as possible.

More immediately and more urgently, you have to trust link-shortening services, but there’s no reason for them to be inherently trustworthy. Most are free services, so you’re not even a customer they would need to care about protecting to the limited extent that corporations care about individual customers these days. They have the power to redirect a shortened link anywhere they want, or to simply break it, and they can do this on a link-by-link basis, on the basis of disliking certain link destinations (as appears may be the case with the story behind Violet Blue’s tweet), or they could do it to all of the links they’ve shortened. Nothing stops them from doing any of this, and nobody has the right to demand they behave differently or better when they do it.

That’s a lot of power-over-your-communications to give away to a third party in exchange for a little convenience. I’ve never really understood why people do it. As a blanket proposition, I would argue that link shorteners suck.

This thread in the appropriate Google support forum dates to 2011, and a close reading shows that Google’s link shortener sucks a little bit more than most because they’ve long been in the habit of letting an automated algorithm declare certain link targets to be “spam” and then disabling the shortened links to them. That thread is full of legitimate users complaining that their shortened links (often the ones in places like sent email newsletters where the person who created the short link has no editing power to replace it with a working one) are broken. In typical Google fashion, these users are left crying into the wind; there is no recourse and scant hope of ever gaining human attention, mercy, or correction of the “error”.

My speculation and prediction is that Google would claim (will claim, if they can ever be induced to respond at all) that Naked Sword was not targeted specifically; rather, the notion would be that the Naked Sword shortlinks were determined to be spam by the implacable and unaccountable software machine. My own gloss on that is that Google’s rolling #Pornocalypse sweeps all porn before it. The company is so hostile to porn that it increasingly treats all porn as spam. (Anybody who has watched the decline in quality of porn-oriented searches on Google knows what I mean by this.)

There are more and more of these situations in the world where we communicate using services provided by faceless and unaccountable corporate actors. There’s no recourse to be had when they decide that one person, one company, or one industry should no longer be heard. It’s not even censorship, it’s just silencing induced by corporate distaste. Less dramatically, there’s nothing to be done when they program their robots to not really give a damn whether a given porn-industry communication is an unwanted commercial solicitation (spam) or a desired and requested communication. The robots don’t give a damn because Google doesn’t give a damn; the concept of a “legitimate porn link” seems not even to be on their radar.

And thus does the #Pornocalypse come for shortened links.

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