The tyranny of extreme copyright

The tyranny of extreme copyright

From an article by Robert S. Boynton in today’s New York Times Magazine:

“Last fall, a group of civic-minded students at Swarthmore College received a sobering lesson in the future of political protest. They had come into possession of some 15,000 e-mail messages and memos — presumably leaked or stolen — from Diebold Election Systems, the largest maker of electronic voting machines in the country. The memos featured Diebold employees’ candid discussion of flaws in the company’s software and warnings that the computer network was poorly protected from hackers. In light of the chaotic 2000 presidential election, the Swarthmore students decided that this information shouldn’t be kept from the public. Like aspiring Daniel Ellsbergs with their would-be Pentagon Papers, they posted the files on the Internet, declaring the act a form of electronic whistle-blowing.

Unfortunately for the students, their actions ran afoul of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (D.M.C.A.), one of several recent laws that regulate intellectual property and are quietly reshaping the culture. Designed to protect copyrighted material on the Web, the act makes it possible for an Internet service provider to be liable for the material posted by its users — an extraordinary burden that providers of phone service, by contrast, do not share. Under the law, if an aggrieved party (Diebold, say) threatens to sue an Internet service provider over the content of a subscriber’s Web site, the provider can avoid liability simply by removing the offending material. Since the mere threat of a lawsuit is usually enough to scare most providers into submission, the law effectively gives private parties veto power over much of the information published online — as the Swarthmore students would soon learn.

Not long after the students posted the memos, Diebold sent letters to Swarthmore charging the students with copyright infringement and demanding that the material be removed from the students’ Web page, which was hosted on the college’s server. Swarthmore complied. The question of whether the students were within their rights to post the memos was essentially moot: thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, their speech could be silenced without the benefit of actual lawsuits, public hearings, judges or other niceties of due process.

After persistent challenges by the students — and a considerable amount of negative publicity for Diebold — in November the company agreed not to sue. To the delight of the students’ supporters, the memos are now back on their Web site. But to proponents of free speech on the Internet, the story remains a chilling one….”.