May 262017
 

The following was cross-posted on Techdirt.

We often talk about how protecting online speech requires protecting platforms, like with Section 230 immunity and the safe harbors of the DMCA. But these statutory shields are not the only way law needs to protect platforms in order to make sure the speech they carry is also protected.

Earlier this month, I helped Techdirt’s think tank arm, the Copia Institute, file an amicus brief in support of Yelp in a case called Montagna v. Nunis. Like many platforms, Yelp lets people post content anonymously. Often people are only willing to speak when they can do so without revealing who they are (note how many people participate in the comments here without revealing their real names), which is why the right to speak anonymously has been found to be part and parcel of the First Amendment right of free speech . It’s also why sites like Yelp let users post anonymously, because often that’s the only way they will feel comfortable posting reviews candid enough to be useful to those who depend on sites like Yelp to help them make informed decisions.

But as we also see, people who don’t like the things said about them often try to attack their critics, and one way they do this is by trying to strip these speakers of their anonymity. True, sometimes online speech can cross the line and actually be defamatory, in which case being able to discover the identity of the speaker is important. This case in no way prevents legitimately aggrieved plaintiffs from using subpoenas to discover the identity of those whose unlawful speech has injured them to sue them for relief. Unfortunately, however, it is not just people with legitimate claims who are sending subpoenas; in many instances they are being sent by people objecting to speech that is perfectly legal, and that’s a problem. Unmasking the speakers behind protected speech not only violates their First Amendment rights to speak anonymously but it also chills the speech the First Amendment is designed to foster generally by making the critical anonymity protection that plenty of legal speech depends on suddenly illusory.

There is a lot that can and should be done to close off this vector of attack on free speech. One important measure is to make sure platforms are able to resist the subpoenas they get demanding they turn over whatever identifying information they have. There are practical reasons why they can’t always fight them — for instance, like DMCA takedown notices, they may simply get too many — but it is generally in their interest to try to resist illegitimate subpoenas targeting the protected speech posted anonymously on their platforms so that their users will not be scared away from speaking on their sites.

But when Yelp tried to resist the subpoena connected with this case, the court refused to let them stand in to defend the user’s speech interest. Worse, it sanctioned(!) Yelp for even trying, thus making platforms’ efforts to stand up for their users even more risky and expensive than they already are.

So Yelp appealed, and we filed an amicus brief supporting their effort. Fortunately, earlier this year Glassdoor won an important California State appellate ruling that validated attempts by platforms to quash subpoenas on behalf of their users. That decision discussed why the First Amendment and California State Constitution required platforms to have this ability to quash subpoenas targeting protected speech, and hopefully this particular appeals court will agree with its sister court and make clear that platforms are allowed to fight off subpoenas like this. As we pointed out in our brief, both state and federal law and policy require online speech to be protected, and preventing platforms from resisting subpoenas is out of step with those stated policy goals and constitutional requirements.

Apr 082016
 

The following is Section III.C of the comment I submitted in the Copyright Office’s study on the operation of Section 512 of the copyright statute.

Questions #16 and #17 more specifically contemplate the effectiveness of the put-back process articulated at subsection 512(g).  As explained in Section III.B this mechanism is not effective for restoring wrongfully removed content and is little used.  But it is worth taking a moment here to further explore the First Amendment harms wrought to both Internet users and service providers by the DMCA.[1]

It is part and parcel of First Amendment doctrine that people are permitted to speak, and to speak anonymously.[2]  Although that anonymity can be stripped in certain circumstances, there is nothing about the allegation of copyright infringement that should cause it to be stripped automatically.  Particularly in light of copyright law incorporating free speech principles[3] this anonymity cannot be more fragile than it would in any other circumstance where speech was subject to legal challenge.  The temptation to characterize all alleged infringers as malevolent pirates who get what they deserve must be resisted; the DMCA targets all speakers and all speech, no matter how fair or necessary to public discourse this speech is.

And yet, with the DMCA, not only is speech itself more vulnerable to censorship via copyright infringement claim than it would be for other types of allegations[4] but so are the necessary protections speakers depend on to be able to speak.[5]  Between the self-identification requirements of subsection 512(g) put-back notices and the ease of demanding user information with subsection 512(h) subpoenas that also do not need to be predicated on actual lawsuits,[6] Internet speakers on the whole must fear the loss of their privacy if anyone dares to construe an infringement claim, no matter how illegitimate or untested that claim may be.  Given the ease of concocting an invalid infringement claim,[7] and the lack of any incentive not to,[8] the DMCA gives all-too-ready access to the identities of Internet users to the people least deserving of it and at the expense of those who most need it.[9]

Furthermore, the DMCA also compromises service providers’ own First Amendment interests in developing the forums and communities they would so choose.  The very design of the DMCA puts service providers at odds with their users, forcing them to be antagonistic their own customers and their own business interests as a condition for protecting those interests.  Attempts to protect their forums or their users can expose them to tremendous costs and potentially incalculable risk, and all of this harm flows from mere allegation that never need be tested in a court of law.  The DMCA forces service providers to enforce censorship compelled by a mere takedown notice, compromise user privacy in response to subsection 512(h) subpoenas (or devote significant resources to trying to quash them), and, vis a vis Questions #22 and 23, disconnect users according to termination policies whose sufficiency cannot be known until a court decides they are not.[10]

The repeat infringer policy requirement of subsection 512(i)(A) exemplifies the statutory problem with many of the DMCA’s safe harbor requirements.  A repeat infringer policy might only barely begin to be legitimate if it applied to the disconnection of a user after a certain number of judicial findings of liability for acts of infringement that users had used the service provider to commit.  But as at least one service provider lost its safe harbor for not permanently disconnecting users after only a certain number of allegations, even though they were allegations that had never been tested in a court consistent with the principles of due process or prohibition on prior restraint.[11]

In no other context would we find these sorts of government incursions against the rights of speakers constitutional, robbing them of their speech, anonymity, and the opportunity to further speak, without adequate due process.  These incursions do not suddenly become constitutionally sound just because the DMCA coerces service providers to be the agent committing these acts instead.
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Comments on DMCA Section 512: On the general effectiveness of the Safe Harbors

 Analysis/commentary, Criminal IP Enforcement, Intermediary liability  Comments Off on Comments on DMCA Section 512: On the general effectiveness of the Safe Harbors
Apr 062016
 

The following is Section III.A of the comment I submitted in the Copyright Office’s study on the operation of Section 512 of the copyright statute.

Question #1 asks whether Section 512 safe harbors are working as intended, and Question #5 asks the related question of whether the right balance has been struck between copyright owners and online service providers.  To the extent that service providers have been insulated from the costs associated with liability for their users’ content, the DMCA, with its safe harbors, has been a good thing.  But the protection is all too often too complicated to achieve, too expensive to assert, or otherwise too illusory for service providers to be adequately protected.

Relatedly, Question #2 asks whether courts have properly construed the entities and activities covered by the safe harbor, and the answer is not always.  But the problem here is not just that they have sometimes gotten it wrong but that there is too often the possibility for them to get it wrong.  Whereas under Section 230 questions of liability for intermediaries for illegality in user-supplied content are relatively straight forward – was the intermediary the party that produced the content? if not, then it is not liable – when the alleged illegality in others’ content relates to potential copyright infringement, the test becomes a labyrinth minefield that the service provider may need to endure costly litigation to navigate.  Not only is ultimate liability expensive but even the process of ensuring that it won’t face that liability can be crippling.[1]  Service providers, and investors in service providers, need a way to minimize and manage the legal risk and associated costs arising from their provision of online services, but given the current complexity[2] outlining the requirements for safe harbors they can rarely be so confidently assured.
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Comments on DMCA Section 512: The assumptions of economic harm underpinning the DMCA must be carefully examined

 Analysis/commentary, Criminal IP Enforcement, Intermediary liability  Comments Off on Comments on DMCA Section 512: The assumptions of economic harm underpinning the DMCA must be carefully examined
Apr 052016
 

The following is Section II.C of the comment I submitted in the Copyright Office’s study on the operation of Section 512 of the copyright statute.

Veoh was a video hosting service akin to YouTube that was found to be eligible for the DMCA safe harbor.[1]  Unfortunately this finding was reached after years of litigation had already driven the company into bankruptcy and forced it to layoff its staff.[2]  Meanwhile SeeqPod was a search engine that helped people (including potential consumers) find multimedia content out on the Internet, but it, too, was also driven into bankruptcy by litigation, taking with it an important tool to help people discover creative works.[3]

History is littered with examples like the ones above of innovative new businesses being driven out of existence, their innovation and investment chilled, by litigation completely untethered from the principles underpinning copyright law.  Copyright law exists solely to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”  Yet all too frequently it has had the exact opposite effect.

The DMCA has the potential to be a crucial equalizer, but it can only do so when the economic value of what these service providers deliver is considered by policymakers with at least as much weight as that given to the incumbent interests who complain that their previous business models may have become unworkable in light of digital technology.  Service providers are economic engines employing innumerable people, directly and indirectly, and driving innovation forward while they deliver a world of information to each and every Internet user.  We know economic harm is done to them and to anyone, creators and consumers, who would have benefited from their services when they are not protected.

But what needs careful scrutiny and testing are economic arguments predicated on the assumption that every digital copy of every copyrighted work transmitted online without the explicit permission of a copyright holder represents a financial loss.  This is a presumption that needs careful scrutiny, with reviewable data and auditable methodology.  It is quite a leap to assume that every instance (or even most instances) of people consuming “pirated” copyrighted works is an instance they would otherwise have paid the creator.  For example, it tends to presume that people have unlimited amounts of money to spend on unlimited numbers of copyrighted works, and it also ignores the fact that some works may only be consumable at a price point of $0, which is something that institutions like libraries and over-the-air radio have long enabled, to the betterment of creators and the public beneficiaries of creative works alike.  Furthermore, even in instances when people would be willing to pay for access to a work, copyright owners may not be offering it at any price, nor are they necessarily equitably sharing the revenues derived from creative works with the actual creators whose efforts require the remuneration.[4]

The DMCA does not adjust to reflect situations like these, nor does it incentivize copyright holders to correct their own self-induced market failures.  On the contrary; it allows them to deprive the public of access to their works and to threaten the service providers enabling their access with extinction if they do not assist in disabling this access. None of these outcomes are consistent with the goals and purpose of copyright in general, and care must be taken not to allow the DMCA be a law that ensures them.
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Comments on DMCA Section 512: The DMCA functions as a system of extra-judicial censorship

 Analysis/commentary, Intermediary liability, Regulating speech  Comments Off on Comments on DMCA Section 512: The DMCA functions as a system of extra-judicial censorship
Apr 042016
 

The following is Section II.B of the comment I submitted in the Copyright Office’s study on the operation of Section 512 of the copyright statute.

Despite all the good that Section 230 and the DMCA have done to foster a robust online marketplace of ideas, the DMCA’s potential to deliver that good has been tempered by the particular structure of the statute.  Whereas Section 230 provides a firm immunity to service providers for potential liability in user-supplied content,[1] the DMCA conditions its protection.[2]  And that condition is censorship.  The irony is that while the DMCA makes it possible for service providers to exist to facilitate online speech, it does so at the expense of the very speech they exist to facilitate due to the notice and takedown system.

In a world without the DMCA, if someone wanted to enjoin content they would need to demonstrate to a court that it indeed owned a valid copyright and that the use of content in question infringed this copyright before a court would compel its removal.  Thanks to the DMCA, however, they are spared both their procedural burdens and also their pleading burdens.  In order to cause content to be disappeared from the Internet all anyone needs to do is send a takedown notice that merely points to content and claims it as theirs.

Although some courts are now requiring takedown notice senders to consider whether the use of the content in question was fair,[3] there is no real penalty for the sender if they get it wrong or don’t bother.[4]  Instead, service providers are forced to become judge and jury, even though (a) they lack the information needed to properly evaluate copyright infringement claims,[5] (b) the sheer volume of takedowns notices often makes case-by-case evaluation of them impossible, and (c) it can be a bet-the-company decision if the service provider gets it wrong because their “error” may deny them the Safe Harbor and put them on the hook for infringement liability.[6]  Although there is both judicial and statutory recognition that service providers are not in the position to police user-supplied content for infringement,[7] there must also be recognition that they are similarly not in the position to police for invalid takedowns.  Yet they must, lest there be no effective check on these censorship demands.

Ordinarily the First Amendment and due process would not permit this sort of censorship, the censorship of an Internet user’s speech predicated on mere allegation.  Mandatory injunctions are disfavored generally,[8] and particularly so when they target speech and may represent impermissible prior restraint on speech that has not yet been determined to be wrongful.[9]  To the extent that the DMCA causes these critical speech protections to be circumvented it is consequently only questionably constitutional.  For the DMCA to be statutorily valid it must retain, in its drafting and interpretation, ample protection to see that these important constitutional speech protections are not ignored.
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Comments on DMCA Section 512: Congress protected intermediaries for a reason

 Analysis/commentary, Intermediary liability  Comments Off on Comments on DMCA Section 512: Congress protected intermediaries for a reason
Apr 032016
 

The following is Section II.A of the comment I submitted in the Copyright Office’s study on the operation of Section 512 of the copyright statute.

Congress in the 1990s may not have been able to predict the growth of the Internet, but it could see the direction it was taking and the value it had the potential to deliver.  We see this recognition first baked into the statutory language of 47 U.S.C. Section 230 (“Section 230”), a 1996 statute that provides unequivocal immunity for service providers that intermediate content from other users:

Congress finds the following: [that t]he rapidly developing array of Internet and other interactive computer services available to individual Americans represent an extraordinary advance in the availability of educational and informational resources to our citizens[;[1] that t]hese services offer users a great degree of control over the information that they receive, as well as the potential for even greater control in the future as technology develops[;[2] that t]he Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity[;[3] that t]he Internet and other interactive computer services have flourished, to the benefit of all Americans, with a minimum of government regulation[;[4] and that i]ncreasingly Americans are relying on interactive media for a variety of political, educational, cultural, and entertainment services.[5]

It was therefore the policy of the United States to, among other things, “promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media”[6] and “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”[7]

As the Notice of Inquiry soliciting comment for this study noted,[8] Congress was still of the same view about the importance of the Internet two years later when it passed the DMCA explicitly to help “foster the continued development of electronic commerce and the growth of the Internet.”[9]  As per an accompanying Senate Report, “The ‘Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998’ is designed to facilitate the robust development and world-wide expansion of electronic commerce, communications, research, development, and education in the digital age.”[10]  As the Report continued, Congress was going to achieve this end by protecting intermediaries, observing that, “[B]y limiting the liability of service providers, the DMCA ensures that the efficiency of the Internet will continue to improve and that the variety and quality of services on the Internet will continue to expand.”[11]

At no time since then has Congress fundamentally changed its view on the value of the Internet.  Nor should it.  In these nearly twenty years we have seen countless businesses and jobs be added to the economy, innumerable examples of pioneering technology be innovated, myriad new markets previously unimaginable be created (including many for those in the arts and sciences to economically exploit), and enormous value returned to the economy.  By protecting online service providers we have changed the world and brought the democratic promise of information and knowledge sharing to bear.  It is therefore absolutely critical that we not create law that interferes with this promise.  If anything, we should take this opportunity to reduce the costly friction that the more inapt portions of the existing law have been imposing instead.
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Comments on DMCA Section 512: Overview and conclusion

 Analysis/commentary, Intermediary liability, Regulating speech  Comments Off on Comments on DMCA Section 512: Overview and conclusion
Apr 022016
 

At Congress’s request the Copyright Office recently initiated several studies looking into how parts of copyright law have been working.  In addition to commenting in the studies about Section 1201 of the copyright act and “software-enabled consumer electronics,” I also commented in the study looking into Section 512 — the portion of the copyright statute that creates safe harbors for service providers intermediating others’ content — on behalf of Floor64/The Copia Institute, the parent company of Techdirt.com, which both advises and educates on intermediary issues and, with Techdirt, is an intermediary itself. There is a post on Techdirt about the comment generally, and the entire comment (all 3600+ words…) is downloadable there, but I decided to cross-post each main section of it here as a series of discrete essays, one per day, every day over this coming week.

To get started, here is an edited compilation of the sections that provide an overview of the argument.  Sections discussing each aspect of that argument will follow.

We file this comment to drive home the point that for the Internet to be the marketplace of ideas Congress anticipated it being in 1998, and, indeed, sought for it to be, it is integral for these businesses to retain durable and reliable protection from liability arising from user-generated content.  Furthermore, as long as Congress is taking the opportunity to study how the existing safe harbor has been functioning, we would flag several areas where it could be made to function better in light of these policy goals as well as areas where it should be changed to make it as protective of speech as the Constitution requires.

With respect to this study [which invited comment via responses to 30 questions], just as history is written by the victors, records are written by those asking the questions.  The hazard is that questions tend to presume answers, even when the answers that they elicit may not necessarily be the answers that are most illuminating.

While there is specific input that can be proffered with respect to various parts of the statute, it would not do the inquiry justice to remain focused on statutory minutiae.  The DMCA is ostensibly designed to confront a specific policy problem.  It is fair, reasonable, and indeed necessary to ensure that this problem is well-defined and well-understood before determining whether, and to what extent, the DMCA is an appropriate or appropriately calibrated solution to it. 

Ultimately, however, it is not possible to have a valid copyright law that in any part is inconsistent with the Progress Clause or First Amendment.  To the extent that the DMCA protects intermediaries and with them the speech they foster it is consistent with both of these constitutional precepts and limitations.  To the extent, however, that that DMCA suborns due process or otherwise compromises the First Amendment rights of either Internet users or service providers themselves to use and develop forums for information exchange on the Internet it is not.  The statutory infirmities that have been leading to the latter outcome should therefore be corrected to make the DMCA’s protections on intermediaries and the speech they foster as durable as this important policy interest requires.
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Jul 282013
 

I was asked to write the “Posts of the Week” for Techdirt this past weekend and used it as an opportunity to convey some of the ideas I explore here to that audience. The post was slightly constrained by the contours of the project — for instance, I could only punctuate my greater points with actual posts that appeared on Techdirt last week — but I think they held together with coherence, and I appreciated the chance to reframe some of the issues Techdirt was already exploring in this way.

In any case, I’ve decided to cross-post my summary here, partly because I always like to host a copy of my guest blog posts on one of my sites, and partly because it gives me a chance to update and annotate those ideas further. Please do go visit Techdirt though, which was kind enough to ask me to do this, to read more about the items described below.
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Feb 292012
 

PayPal recently made news for implementing a policy denying its payment processing services to publications including obscene content.  There are several things objectionable about this policy, including the lack of any clear way of delineating what content would qualify as “obscene,” and its overall censorious impact.

But I’m not entirely sure that PayPal is necessarily the appropriate target for criticism of this policy.  It may be, to the extent that it is a truly discretionary policy PayPal has voluntarily chosen to pursue.  If it could just as easily chosen not to pursue it it can be fairly criticized for the choice it did make.  For this policy is not as simple as banning certain objectively horrible content 100% of all people would agree should be stricken from the face of the earth.  After all, there *is* no objectively horrible content 100% of all people would agree is objectionable.  Instead this policy has the effect of denying market opportunities to all sorts of writers producing all sorts of valid content, even if some people may not happen to like it.  And it does this not just by denying particular publications access to its services but by forcing electronic publishers to overcensor all the works they publish lest PayPal services be shut off to their entire businesses. Continue reading »