Intermediary Deputization & Section 230

It’s been over five years since Congress passed major legislation addressing copyright protection, but this hasn’t stopped copyright owners from achieving real progress in securing their expressive works. In cooperation with private-sector stakeholders, rights holders have made several deals aimed at combating copyright infringement and channeling consumer demand for original content toward legitimate outlets. These voluntary agreements will be the subject of a hearing this afternoon (9/18) before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. This panel marks the latest in a series of hearings the committee launched earlier this year to review the Copyright Act, much of which dates back to 1976 or earlier.

Copyright consensus may sound like an oxymoron, especially in the wake of last year’s bruising legislative battle over SOPA and PIPA. But in reality, there’s no shortage of common ground when it comes to copyright protection. Despite all the controversy that surrounds the issue, copyright isn’t so much a “conflict of visions”, to borrow from Thomas Sowell, but a conflict of tactics, as I argued earlier this year on Cato Unbound.

Indeed, with some notable exceptions, most scholars, business leaders, and policymakers accept that government has a legitimate and important role in securing to inventors and creators the fruits of their labors“. Unsurprisingly, the devil is in the details, where genuinely tough questions arise regarding the government’s proper role in policing the Internet for copyright violations. Should the law hold online intermediaries accountable for their users’ infringing acts? What remedies should the law afford rights holders whose works are unlawfully distributed all over the Internet, often by profit-generating foreign actors?

Continue reading →

Andrew Orlowski of The Register (U.K.) recently posted a very interesting essay making the case for treating online copyright and privacy as essentially the same problem in need of the same solution: increased property rights. In his essay (“‘Don’t break the internet’: How an idiot’s slogan stole your privacy“), he argues that, “The absence of permissions on our personal data and the absence of permissions on digital copyright objects are two sides of the same coin. Economically and legally they’re an absence of property rights – and an insistence on preserving the internet as a childlike, utopian world, where nobody owns anything, or ever turns a request down. But as we’ve seen, you can build things like libraries with permissions too – and create new markets.” He argues that “no matter what law you pass, it won’t work unless there’s ownership attached to data, and you, as the individual, are the ultimate owner. From the basis of ownership, we can then agree what kind of rights are associated with the data – eg, the right to exclude people from it, the right to sell it or exchange it – and then build a permission-based world on top of that.”

And so, he concludes, we should set aside concerns about Internet regulation and information control and get down to the business of engineering solutions that would help us property-tize both intangible creations and intangible facts about ourselves to better shield our intellectual creations and our privacy in the information age. He builds on the thoughts of Mark Bide, a tech consultant:

For Bide, privacy and content markets are just a technical challenges that need to be addressed intelligently.”You can take two views,” he told me. “One is that every piece of information flowing around a network is a good thing, and we should know everything about everybody, and have no constraints on access to it all.” People who believe this, he added, tend to be inflexible – there is no half-way house. “The alternative view is that we can take the technology to make privacy and intellectual property work on the network. The function of copyright is to allow creators and people who invest in creation to define how it can be used. That’s the purpose of it. “So which way do we want to do it?” he asks. “Do we want to throw up our hands and do nothing? The workings of a civilised society need both privacy and creator’s rights.”  But this a new way of thinking about things: it will be met with cognitive dissonance. Copyright activists who fight property rights on the internet and have never seen a copyright law they like, generally do like their privacy. They want to preserve it, and will support laws that do. But to succeed, they’ll need to argue for stronger property rights. They have yet to realise that their opponents in the copyright wars have been arguing for those too, for years. Both sides of the copyright “fight” actually need the same thing. This is odd, I said to Bide. How can he account for this irony? “Ah,” says Bide. “Privacy and copyright are two things nobody cares about unless it’s their own privacy, and their own copyright.”

These are important insights that get at a fundamental truth that all too many people ignore today: At root, most information control efforts are related and solutions for one problem can often be used to address others. But there’s another insight that Orlowski ignores: Whether we are discussing copyright, privacy, online speech and child safety, or cybersecurity, all these efforts to control the free flow of digitized bits over decentralized global networks will be increasingly complex, costly, and riddled with myriad unintended consequences. Importantly, that is true whether you seek to control information flows through top-down administrative regulation or by assigning and enforcing property rights in intellectual creations or private information.

Let me elaborate a bit (and I apologize for the rambling mess of rant that follows).

Continue reading →

In the ongoing debate over SOPA, PIPA, and rogue websites legislation, most commentators have focused on what Congress should and shouldn’t do to combat these sites. Less attention, however, has been paid to the underlying assumption that these rogue websites represent a public policy problem. While no one has defended websites that defraud consumers by deceptively selling them fake pharmaceuticals and other counterfeit goods, many consumers who frequent “rogue websites” do so for the express purpose of downloading copyright infringing content.

As Julian Sanchez explains over on Cato-at-Liberty, how the latter category of rogue websites (including The Pirate Bay and, until last week, MegaUpload) affects the U.S. economy and social welfare is hotly contested in the economic literature:

[I]t’s become an indisputable premise in Washington that there’s an enormous piracy problem, that it’s having a devastating impact on U.S. content industries, and that some kind of aggressive new legislation is needed tout suite to stanch the bleeding. Despite the fact that the [GAO] recently concluded that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the net effect of counterfeiting and piracy on the economy as a whole,” our legislative class has somehow determined that . . . this is an urgent priority. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of copyrighted material circulating on the Internet without authorization, and other things equal, one would like to see less of it. But does the best available evidence show that this is inflicting such catastrophic economic harm—that it is depressing so much output, and destroying so many jobs—that Congress has no option but to Do Something immediately? Bearing the GAO’s warning in mind, the data we do have doesn’t remotely seem to justify the DEFCON One rhetoric that now appears to be obligatory on the Hill. The International Intellectual Property Alliance . . . actually paints a picture of industries that, far from being “killed” by piracy, are already weathering a harsh economic climate better than most, and have far outperformed the overall U.S. economy through the current recession.

Julian makes several great points, and his essay is well worth reading in its entirety.

Nevertheless, in my view, rogue websites dedicated to the infringement of U.S. copyrights pose a public policy problem that merits not only serious congressional attention, but also prompt (albeit prudent) legislative action. While I’m relieved that the flawed SOPA and PIPA bills seem unlikely to pass in their current forms, I also think it would be unwise for Congress to dither on rogue sites legislation for years in search of “credible data” about how such sites impact our economy.

Continue reading →

Over at TIME.com, I write that while Congress mulls an Internet blacklist in SOPA, there are efforts underway to reengineer parts of the Net to make communications more decentralized and censorship-proof. These include distributed and decentralized DNS systems, currencies, and social networks, as well as attempts to circumvent ISPs using mesh networking.

>It’s not a certainty that these projects will all succeed. Most probably won’t. Yet these far-out efforts serve as proof-of-concept for a censorship-resistant Internet. Just as between Napster and BitTorrent there was Gnutella and Freenet, it will take time for these concepts to mature. What is certain is the trend. The more governments squeeze the Internet in an attempt to control information, the more it will turn to sand around their fingers.

Read the whole thing here.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a controversial bill before the House of Representatives aimed at combating “rogue websites,” isn’t just about criminal, foreign-based sites that break U.S. intellectual property laws with impunity. Few dispute that these criminal websites that profit from large-scale counterfeiting and copyright infringement are a public policy problem. SOPA’s provisions, however, extend beyond these criminal sites, and would potentially subject otherwise law-abiding Internet intermediaries to serious legal risks.

Before moving forward with rogue websites legislation, it’s crucial that lawmakers take a deep breath and appreciate the challenges at stake in legislating online intermediary liability, lest we endanger the Nozickian “utopia of utopias” that is today’s Internet. The unintended consequences of overbroad, carelessly drafted legislation in this space could be severe, particularly given the Internet’s incredible importance to the global economy, as my colleagues have explained on these pages (123456)

To understand why SOPA could be a game-changer for online service providers, it’s important to understand the simmering disagreement surrounding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, which grants certain online service providers a safe harbor from liability for their users’ copyright infringing actions. In exchange for these protections, service providers must comply with the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown system, adopt a policy to terminate users who repeatedly infringe, and meet several other conditions. Service providers are only eligible for this safe harbor if they act to expeditiously remove infringing materials upon learning of them. Also ineligible for the safe harbor are online service providers who turn a blind eye to “red flags” of obvious infringement.

The DMCA does not, however, require providers to monitor their platforms for infringing content or design their services to facilitate monitoring. Courts have held that a DMCA-compliant service provider does not lose its safe harbor protection if it fails to act upon generalized knowledge that its service is used for many infringing activities, in addition to lawful ones, so long as the service provider does not induce or encourage users’ infringing activities.

Defenders of the DMCA safe harbor argue that it’s helped enable America’s Internet-based economy to flourish, allowing an array of web businesses built around lawful user-generated content — including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter — to thrive without fear of copyright liability or burdensome monitoring mandates.

Conversely, some commentators, including UCLA’s Doug Lichtman, argue that the DMCA inefficiently tips the scales in favor of service providers, to the detriment of content creators — and, ultimately, consumer welfare. Pointing to a series of court rulings interpreting the safe harbor’s provisions, critics argue that the DMCA gives online intermediaries little incentive to do anything beyond the bare minimum to stop copyright infringement. Critics further allege that the safe harbor has been construed so broadly that it shields service providers that are deliberately indifferent to their users’ infringing activities, however rampant they may be.

What does SOPA have to do with all of this? Buried in the bill’s 78 pages are several provisions that run a very real risk of effectively sidestepping many of the protections conferred on online service providers by the DMCA safe harbor.

Continue reading →

This afternoon the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261) was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith of the House Judiciary Committee. This bill is a companion to the PROTECT IP Act and S.978, both of which were reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.

There’s a lot some to like about the bill, but I’m uneasy about some quite a few of its provisions. While I’ll have plenty to say about this bill in the future, for now, here are a few preliminary thoughts:

  • The bill’s definition of “foreign infringing sites” at p. 10 borrows heavily from 18 U.S.C. § 2323, covering any site that commits or facilitates the commission of criminal copyright infringement and would be subject to civil forfeiture if it were U.S.-based. Unfortunately, the outer bounds of 18 U.S.C. § 2323 are quite unclear. The statute, which was enacted only a few years ago, encompasses “any property used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part to commit or facilitate” criminal copyright infringement. While I’m all for shutting down websites operated by criminal enterprises, not all websites used to facilitate crimes are guilty of wrongdoing. Imagine a user commits criminal copyright infringement using a foreign video sharing site similar to YouTube, but the site is unaware of the infringement. Since the site is “facilitating” criminal copyright infringement, albeit unknowingly, is it subject to the Stop Online Piracy Act?
  • Section 103 of the bill, which creates a DMCA-like notification/counter-notification regime, appears to lack any provision encouraging ad networks and payment processors to restore service to a site allegedly “dedicated to theft of U.S. property” upon receipt of a valid counter-notification and when no civil action has been brought. The DMCA contains a safe harbor protecting service providers who take reasonable steps to take down content from liability, but the safe harbor only applies if service providers promptly restore allegedly infringing content upon receipt of a counter notification and when the rights holder does not initiate a civil action. Why doesn’t H.R. 3261 include a similar provision?
  • The bill’s private right of action closely resembles that found in the PROTECT IP Act. Affording rights holders a legal avenue to take action against rogue websites makes sense, but I’m uneasy about creating a private right of action that allows courts to issue such broad preliminary injunctions against allegedly infringing sites. I’m also concerned about the lack of a “loser pays” provision.
  • Section 104 of the bill, which provides immunity for entities that take voluntary actions against infringing sites, now excludes from its safe harbor actions that are not “consistent with the entity’s terms of service or other contractual rights.” This is a welcome change and alleviates concerns I expressed about the PROTECT IP Act essentially rendering certain private contracts unenforceable.
  • Section 201 of the bill makes certain public performances via electronic means a felony. The section contains a rule of construction at p. 60 that clarifies that intentional copying is not “willful” if it’s based on a good faith belief with a reasonable basis in law that the copying is lawful. Could this provision cause courts to revisit the willfulness standard discussed in United States v. Moran, in which a federal court found that a defendant charged with criminal copyright infringement was not guilty because he (incorrectly) thought his conduct was permitted by the Copyright act?

Over the weekend, Janet Morrissey of The New York Times posted an excellent article on the U.S. government’s continuing crackdown on Internet gambling. (“Poker Inc. to Uncle Sam: Shut Up and Deal“) Ironically, her article arrives on the same week during which PBS aired the terrific new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on the history of alcohol prohibition in the United States. It’s a highly-recommended look at the utter hypocrisy and futility of prohibiting a product that millions of people find enjoyable. If there’s a simple moral to the story of Prohibition, it’s that you can’t repress human nature–not for long, at least, and not without serious unintended consequences. Which is why Morrissey of the Times notes:

And so the poker world now finds itself in a situation many liken to Prohibition. America didn’t stop drinking when the government outlawed alcoholic beverages in 1919. And, in this Internet age, it won’t be easy to prevent people from gambling online, whatever the government says. “It’s a game of whack-a-mole,” says Behnam Dayanim, an expert on online gambling and a partner at the Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider law firm. “They’ve whacked three very large moles, but over time, more moles will pop up.”

Exactly right (except that it should be “whac” not “whack”! There’s no K in whac-a-mole.)  It reminds me of the paper that my blogging colleague Tom Bell penned back in 1999 for the Cato Institute with its perfect title: “Internet Gambling: Popular, Inexorable, and (Eventually) Legal.” As Tom noted back then: Continue reading →

There is a major controversy rocking the UK over the far-reaching press gag orders known as “super-injunctions,” especially because they’ve been brought to the fore by a sex scandal between famous footballer Ryan Giggs and reality TV star Imogen Thomas. (This blog post is now officially illegal in the UK.) In [my latest TIME.com Techland post](http://techland.time.com/2011/05/21/twitters-super-duper-u-k-censorship-trouble/), I explain the controversy and say that while the injunction is legally enforceable–Facebook has a London office with over 50 employees, and [today comes word](http://blogs.ft.com/fttechhub/2011/05/twitter-london/) that Twitter is starting up its UK operation–they are not practically enforceable because once out, the information cannot be controlled. I wrote:

>Controlling information is possible, but only at the margin and at great cost. As information technology advances, that margin at which information can be controlled gets thinner and thinner, and the costs of doing so become greater and greater. So given the apparent futility of keeping facts secret, you’d think officials would look to find better ways of confronting the new reality. That’s unfortunately not the case.

>“Why are we assuming that the world of communication, developing as rapidly as it is, can never be brought under control by other technological developments?” asked the head of the U.K.’s judiciary yesterday. “I am not giving up on the possibility that people who in effect peddle lies about others through modern technology may one day be brought under control.”

>And we should not forget to look in the mirror. While the U.S. has some of the world’s most extensive free speech and press liberties, it seems every week there is a new proposal to control what information can be published online.

One of my favorite topics lately has been the challenges faced by information control regimes. Jerry Brito and I are writing a big paper on this issue right now. Part of the story we tell is that the sheer scale / volume of modern information flows is becoming so overwhelming that it raises practical questions about just how effective any info control regime can be. [See our recent essays on the topic: 1, 23, 4, 5.]  As we continue our research, we’ve been attempting to unearth some good metrics / factoids to help tell this story.  It’s challenging because there aren’t many consistent data sets depicting online data growth over time and some of the best anecdotes from key digital companies are only released sporadically. Anyway, I’d love to hear from others about good metrics and data sets that we should be examining.  In the meantime, here are a few fun facts I’ve unearthed in my research so far. Please let me know if more recent data is available. [Note: Last updated 7/18/11]

  • Facebook: users submit around 650,000 comments on the 100 million pieces of content served up every minute on its site.[1]  People on Facebook install 20 million applications every day.[2]
  • YouTube: every minute, 48 hours of video were uploaded.  According to Peter Kafka of The Wall Street Journal, “That’s up 37 percent in the last six months, and 100 percent in the last year. YouTube says the increase comes in part because it’s easier than ever to upload stuff, and in part because YouTube has started embracing lengthy live streaming sessions. YouTube users are now watching more than 3 billion videos a day. That’s up 50 percent from the last year, which is also a huge leap, though the growth rate has declined a bit: Last year, views doubled from a billion a day to two billion in six months.”[3]
  • eBay is now the world’s largest online marketplace with more than 90 million active users globally and $60 billion in transactions annually, or $2,000 every second.[4]
  • Google: 34,000 searches per second (2 million per minute; 121 million per hour; 3 billion per day; 88 billion per month).[5]
  • Twitter already has 300 million users producing 140 million Tweets a day, which adds up to a billion Tweets every 8 days[6] (@ 1,600 Tweets per second)  “On the first day Twitter was made available to the public, 224 tweets were sent. Today, that number of updates are posted at least 10 times a second.”[7]
  • Apple: more than 10 billion apps have been downloaded from its App Store by customers in over 77 countries.[8] According to Chris Burns of SlashGear, “Currently it appears that another thousand apps are downloaded every 9 seconds in the Android Marketplace while every 3 seconds another 1,000 apps are downloaded in the App Store.”
  • Yelp: as of July 2011 the site hosted over 18 million user reviews.[9]
  • Wikipedia: Every six weeks, there are 10 million edits made to Wikipedia.[10]
  • “Humankind shared 65 exabytes of information in 2007, the equivalent of every person in the world sending out the contents of six newspapers every day.”[11]
  • Researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego, estimate that, in 2008, the world’s 27 million business servers processed 9.57 zettabytes, or 9,570,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of information.  This is “the digital equivalent of a 5.6-billion-mile-high stack of books from Earth to Neptune and back to Earth, repeated about 20 times a year.” The study also estimated that enterprise server workloads are doubling about every two years, “which means that by 2024 the world’s enterprise servers will annually process the digital equivalent of a stack of books extending more than 4.37 light-years to Alpha Centauri, our closest neighboring star system in the Milky Way Galaxy.”[12]
  • According to Dave Evans, Cisco’s chief futurist and chief technologist for the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, about 5 exabytes of unique information were created in 2008. That’s 1 billion DVDs. Fast forward three years and we are creating 1.2 zettabytes, with one zettabyte equal to 1,024 exabytes. “This is the same as every person on Earth tweeting for 100 years, or 125 million years of your favorite one-hour TV show,” says Evans. Our love of high-definition video accounts for much of the increase. By Cisco’s count, 91% of Internet data in 2015 will be video.[13]


[1]     Ken Deeter, “Live Commenting: Behind the Scenes,” Facebook.com, February 7, 2011, http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=496077348919.

[4]     eBay, “Who We Are,” http://www.ebayinc.com/who

[5]     Matt McGee, “By The Numbers: Twitter Vs. Facebook Vs. Google Buzz,” SearchEngineLand, February 23, 2010, http://searchengineland.com/by-the-numbers-twitter-vs-facebook-vs-google-buzz-36709

[7]     Nicholas Jackson, “Infographic: A Look at Twitter’s Explosive Five-Year History,” The Atlantic, July 18, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/07/infographic-a-look-at-twitters-explosive-five-year-history/242070

[9]     “10 Things You Should Know about Yelp,” Yelp.com, http://www.yelp.com/about [accessed July 18, 2011]

[10]   “Wikipedia: Edit Growth Measured in Time between Every 10,000,000th Edit,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Katalaveno/TBE

[11]   Martin Hilbert and Priscila Lopez, “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information,” Science, February 10, 2011, http://annenberg.usc.edu/News%20and%20Events/News/110210Hilbert.aspx.

[12]   Rex Graham, “Business Information Consumption: 9,570,000,000,000,000,000,000 Bytes per Year,” UC San Diego News Center, April 6, 2011, http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/general/04-05BusinessInformation.asp.

[13]   Julie Bort, “10 Technologies That Will Change the World in the Next 10 Years,” Network World, July 15, 2011, http://m.networkworld.com/news/2011/071511-cisco-futurist.html?page=1

My latest Forbes column is a celebration of 47 U.S.C. §230, otherwise known as “Section 230.” Sec. 230 turns 15 years old this year and I argue that this important law has “helped foster the abundance of informational riches that lies at our fingertips today” and has served as “the foundation of our Internet freedoms.”  Sadly, however, few people have even heard of it. Worse yet, as I note in my essay, this important law is under attack from various academics and organizations who want it modified to address a variety of online problems. But, as I note:

If the threat of punishing liability is increased, the chilling effect on the free exchange of views and information would likely be quite profound. Many site administrators would immediately start removing massive amounts of content to avoid liability. More simply, they might just shut down any interactive features on their sites or limit service in other ways.

Head over to Forbes to read the rest. And here’s a graphic I put together illustrating all the new fault lines in the war against Sec. 230. It will be included in a new paper on the issue that I am wrapping up right now.