Enemies of press and speech freedoms have concocted a new method for fighting truth though exploitation of US copyright law. According to an original report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and substantiated by the BBC, at least five articles critical of powerful oil lobbyists have been subject to takedown following “bogus” copyright claims.
Anonymous individuals have created fake copies of the articles they seek to censor, with publication dates preexisting those of the original articles. These individuals then issue a copyright infringement claim under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to the servers that host the original articles. Under US law, “any online author saying that their content has been stolen can seek to have what they claim is the infringing material ‘taken down’ by triggering a formal legal process through web servers who host the material.” The process differs depending on the server, but the bogus complaints can keep content blocked for weeks while the original author proves their credentials.
As the OCCRP and the BBC reported, the digital news website Diario Rombe has been subject to such complaints for five articles it co-published with the OCCRP. Based in Spain, Diario Rombe is an investigative news outlet focused on Equatorial Guinea. The articles in question cover Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, who is Equatorial Guinea’s new minister of planning and economic development and the son of the nation’s president, and the attorney NJ Ayuk. As the OCCRP reported, in 2019 South Africa’s Mail & Guardian was attacked using the DMCA for reporting that Ayuk had been previously convicted of fraud in the US and investigated for money laundering in Ghana. In that case, the Mail & Guardian website was taken down in what the respected newspaper called a “censorship attack.”
In 2022 Climate Home News published an article about Ayuk’s new partnership with two UN agencies, referring to Ayuk as a “convicted fraudster lobbying for African gas.” In a genuine show of the power of investigative journalism, the UN cancelled these initiatives following the article’s publication. Two weeks later, however, Climate Home’s editor, Megan Darby, was forced to remove the article for several weeks while she addressed the false claims. “These bogus allegations look like a devious tactic to suppress independent journalism,” Darby stated.
Weaknesses in the enforcement of DMCA takedowns have been a subject of discussion in various commercial fields including cryptocurrency, YouTube, and Google. However, reports of the attacks on journalism are not garnering the same outrage.
An article published by Glyn Moody of Tech Dirt reported on a 2022 research project by Lumen which found “nearly 34,000 takedown notices that ‘appear to be attempts to misuse the DMCA notice-and-takedown process.’” These claims targeted online articles, and largely employed the same fake backdating technique used against the Mail & Guadian and Climate Home News.
A separate report by Peter Guest of Rest of World discussed an entire sector of business known as “reputation management”—or, tellingly, “reputation laundering”—that regularly utilizes copyright complaints to protect clients’ reputations. These businesses use a flurry of false complaints to target information that reflects poorly on their powerful public-facing clients. Guest reported, “The industry has thrived, in part thanks to the effectiveness, ease, and low cost of making complaints using the DMCA. Hosting providers often lack the capacity or interest to investigate every complaint, and, under the law they can be held liable for contributing to the infringement of copyright, if it’s later proven, which can be very costly. Often, they simply comply with these requests.”
The threats posed by these phony copyright complaints are largely being raised and fought by independent investigative journalists. Without the legal capital to fight back on a large scale, disseminators of invaluable information are being stripped of their only means to expose and oppose corruption, their speech. Until copyright law is amended to acknowledge and protect legitimate authors, censorship at the hands the powerful will continue to prevail in the fight for narrative.
“Fake Copyright Complaints Seek to Remove Reports on Minister and Lawyer,” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, March 1, 2023.
BBC Trending, “How Fake Copyright Complaints Are Muzzling Journalists,” BBC News, March 2, 2023.
Student Researcher: Zach McNanna (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)