Censorship by copyright: Myles Powers and abuse of DMCA takedowns


One of the problems inherent in any form of censorship — even censorship that’s valid in the first place — is function creep.

Come up with a clever way to block illegal images of child sexual abuse, and someone will want to use it to block piracy websites, and so on. Force ISPs to install parental-control filters, and soon the infrastructure is being used to block extremist videos and other “harmful content”. And so on. It’s all well-intentioned, but censorship with good intentions can still go wrong.

Here’s one such example. The wonderfully named Myles Power is a science blogger from Middlesbrough. His website features oodles of educational YouTube videos, from how to extract DNA from strawberries to making a basic jet engine at home.

He got his start — or at least a bump up the YouTube rankings — after being asked by Google’s video site to become something called an “EDU guru”, which basically means they flew the Brit to San Francisco to teach him how better to share his passion for science education online.

All excellent stuff, and a wonderful example of using the web to teach and inspire.

Tomorrow, however, he’s at risk of having his entire YouTube channel of science education videos yanked, following a DMCA takedown request.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a US law that gives websites “safe harbour” from copyright claims if they act quickly to take down infringing content when notified by the owner. In other words, if someone posts, say, Miley Cyrus’ entire catalogue of songs on YouTube, her record label can ask Google to delete the videos. As well it should (not least to halt her spread).

Because of the epic scale of managing this — a lot of people post a lot of infringing content — much of the process has been automated. Any individual or organisation can file a claim of infringement through Google’s website for its search results or YouTube content. They’re supposed to claim only if they own the content, or are acting on the owner’s behalf, and, naturally, only if their claim is valid. However, there’s nothing stopping someone from filing a claim against, for example, PC Pro‘s own channel, even if we weren’t infringing anything (which we aren’t, so don’t get any ideas), and we’d be forced to respond to avoid trouble.

And that’s what happened to Power — though he’s not exactly uploading pop songs. Alongside his educational work, he creates Bad-Science-style videos debunking inaccurate science beliefs. His most recent has focused on an AIDS-denying documentary, which has attracted the attention of the group behind the film. That group has issued multiple DMCA takedown notices requesting that the content be removed from YouTube — which Google has obediently done. And because he’s had so many complaints, the rest of Power’s content — unrelated to that documentary — is also at risk of being pulled.

In other words, it’s censorship by copyright law.

Here’s Power’s explanation of the situation in his own words:

Power does have a recourse, other than hoping journalists will hassle Google enough to sort this issue out. He can file a “counter-notification” via a link directly in his account — but this takes ten days to process. The first claims against his account hit on 7 February, and because he’s had so many complaints (all from the same source) his account is at risk of termination on 18 February.

To pause the process, it appears he can file a “valid” counter-notification, and hope YouTube and Google agree with him. Power’s fans, meanwhile, have found other ways to respond, notably uploading his videos to other sharing sites, to ensure they remain available regardless of YouTube’s final decision.

There’s another downside to Google’s system, however. It isn’t the web giant’s fault, but as the counter-notice is a legal document, it includes your “personal information” — making it a handy way to track down personal details of your critics, should you want to harass them further (though there’s no suggestion that’s the motivation in Power’s case).

The simple fact remains that an educational blogger — one who has been flown around the world by YouTube itself in recognition of the value of his uploads — is being forced to fight paperwork battles and PR skirmishes thanks to misuse of the DMCA, when he should be teaching children how to (safely) explode things in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it surely won’t be the last. Google has sought to draw attention to the situation, publishing every copyright notice it receives via the Chilling Effects website, but what’s really needed is a better system for stopping harassment via DMCA.

Copyright issues need dealing with, but any law that allows content to be banned for a good reason can be abused to remove something for the wrong reasons. We need to build in protections at the beginning of any such process, rather than allowing educators to be pushed off YouTube.

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