Mad About Bogus Takedowns? Blame Congress, Not Online Intermediaries

by on April 29, 2011 · 2 comments

User-driven websites — also known as online intermediaries — frequently come under fire for disabling user content due to bogus or illegitimate takedown notices. Facebook is at the center of the latest controversy involving a bogus takedown notice. On Thursday morning, the social networking site disabled Ars Technica’s page after receiving a DMCA takedown notice alleging the page contained copyright infringing material. While details about the claim remain unclear, given that Facebook restored Ars’s page yesterday evening, it’s a safe bet that the takedown notice was without merit.

Understandably, Ars Technica wasn’t exactly pleased that its Facebook page — one of its top sources of incoming traffic — was shut down for seemingly no good reason. Ars was particularly disappointed by how Facebook handled the situation. In an article posted yesterday (and updated throughout the day), Ars co-founder Ken Fisher and senior editor Jacqui Cheng chronicled their struggle in getting Facebook to simply discuss the situation with them and allow Ars to respond to the takedown notice.

Facebook took hours to respond to Ars’s initial inquiry, and didn’t provide a copy of takedown notice until the following day. Several other major tech websites, including ReadWriteWeb and TheNextWeb, also covered the issue, noting that Ars Technica is the latest in a series of websites to have suffered from their Facebook page being wrongly disabled. In a follow-up article posted today, Ars elaborated on what happened and offered some tips to Facebook on how it could have better handled the situation.

It’s totally fair to criticize how Facebook deals with content takedown requests. Ars is right that the company could certainly do a much better job of handling the process, and Facebook will hopefully re-evaluate its procedures in light of this widely publicized snafu. In calling out Facebook’s flawed approach to dealing with takedown requests, however, Ars Technica doesn’t do justice to the larger, more fundamental problem of bogus takedown notices.

As Mike Masnick explains on Techdirt, U.S. federal laws strongly discourage online intermediaries from trying to figure out if takedown notices are legitimate or not. If Facebook were to refuse to comply with a copyright takedown notice that subsequently turned out to be meritorious, it would lose its safe harbor provided for in 17 U.S.C. § 512(c). Should Facebook err in its judgment, therefore, it would potentially be on the hook for harsh copyright infringement penalties. In effect, the DMCA incentivizes what Masnick describes as “massive overreactions” by online intermediaries.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some simple steps Facebook could take to combat bogus takedown notices without exposing itself to additional liability, especially in “easy” cases, as Ars and others have argued. Verifying that takedown notices are associated with valid email addresses is one such step that Facebook apparently does not currently employ. Facebook could also be more responsive to users whose content has been disabled, at least when the content in question is highly visible.

Perhaps more importantly, Facebook should adopt a system for enabling users who believe their content has been wrongly disabled to file a counter notification. YouTube, for instance, has a slick online system that lets users challenge wrongful takedown requests. Under 17 U.S.C. § 512(g), an online service provider may restore previously-disabled content between 10 and 14 days after receipt of a valid counter notification if the content owner hasn’t initiated legal proceedings. It’s odd that Facebook hasn’t adopted an online counter notification system, especially given that service providers are shielded from liability if they respond to counter notices in accordance with section 512(g).

While it would be great if Facebook were to manually and thoroughly screen all user complaints and requests, expecting online intermediaries to pay for a live human being — say, an intellectual property lawyer or a paralegal — to vet the legal merits of each takedown notice is simply unreasonable. Facebook has more than 600 million active users, but a mere 2,000 or so employees (although that number may soon grow substantially). That’s over 300,000 users per employee!

And let’s not forget that Facebook is a free service. The company generated a scant $4 of revenue per user in 2010. Facebook’s going to have to do a much better job of monetizing its platform before we can reasonably expect it to vet legal requests on its users’ behalf. Even Google — with a head count and revenue more than ten times Facebook’s — is frequently chastised for not doing enough to identify bogus or otherwise invalid takedown notices. Based on some of the “horror stories” that have been reported recently, Ars Technica is lucky that Facebook restored its page within a day of its removal.

Even if Facebook improves its system, however, the underlying problem of bogus takedown notices is probably here to stay — that is, until Congress acts. Reopening the legislative debate over the DMCA is a risky gambit, but at least in theory, Congress could improve the statute by adopting some relatively minor tweaks.

First, the DMCA should do more to deter parties from filing invalid or bad faith DMCA takedown notices. Courts rarely punish parties for filing illegitimate takedown notices, as it is very difficult in practice to show  that a notice was filed in bad faith. All in all, the overwhelming majority of incidents of bogus takedown notices go unpunished, as I’ve discussed before on these pages.

Wendy Seltzer of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy chronicled the chilling effects of DMCA takedown abuses in a recent Harvard Journal of Law & Technology article. She suggests a few legislative fixes to 17 U.S.C. § 512(f) to better balance the interests of users and rightsholders:

The law should require greater diligence: declarations on penalty of perjury to match those required by the respondent, and perhaps even a bond against erroneous claims. . . . Strengthening the counter-suit provisions could encourage a plaintiffs’ bar to take up these cases as private attorneys general. Stiffening the penalties against claimants who obtained takedowns through misrepresentation of infringement would encourage claimants to verify and support their claims of infringement or penalize them for failure to do so rather than allowing them to shift that burden to service providers and posters.

Congress should also create a safe harbor, notice-and-takedown system for online trademark infringement, as Elizabeth Levin has argued. While copyright takedown notices receive most of the attention in the IP debates, there’s no DMCA-esque process established in statute to provide for online intermediaries to disable and repost allegedly trademark-infringing content.

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