John Robb: YouTube Censorship by the Millions

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John Robb

What do you think of the following: YouTube has an “informal system” that allows companies with copyrights to automatically scan all uploads for potential violations. If the software detects the “possibility” of a violation (image, tune, trademark, etc.), it automatically tells YouTube to delete the content. This software is so automated, it can censor millions of uploads a day without human intervention.

Here’s an example of how this censoring system was used to block speech that Universal music found objectionable:

A site called MegaUpload, a “large file” sharing service based in Hong Kong, is targeted by copyright holders, including Universal Music, for shutdown. They believe the site makes “copyright piracy” easier.

To fight back on the media front, MegaUpload, a popular (50 m users a day), pays $3 million to produce a music video that promotes the service. The video features big name musical talent.

MegaUpload posts the music video to YouTube to share it with a global audience.

Universal Music, uses special access it has the to the YouTube system (inappropriately named the “content management system”) that allows it to scan all videos posted to the service for potential uses of Universal musical content or the mention of or likenesses of artists it has under contract.

Universal Music identifies that several of its artists are in the MegaUpload video. It automatically signals YouTube to remove/take down the video. YouTube complies. It does so automatically and without verification that Universal even has a valid claim to the copyright. Why?

YouTube built this “management” system to make it easy for big corporate copyright holders (99.9% of copyright holders don’t get access to this system, they get a form) to easily remove content. The reasons is clear: Current law says that upon notification from a “copyright holder” that some hosted content is in violation of copyright, a service provide (YouTube in this case) must immediately remove the content or face up to $150,000 in fines per violation. So, rather than risk this fine, YouTube has decided to let big copyright companies directly censor contributions to their site.

MegaUpload decides to challenge the takedown. Universal Music fights back by claiming that some of their artists (Will.i.am for example) did not authorize the video and this video is a clear violation of their rights. This proves to be a lie. After a substantail amount of legal wrangling, it’s proven that all of the artists in the video signed releases.

YouTube finally reinstates the video. MegaUpload is told it can’t sue Universal for damages because the system that deletes content from YouTube is based on informal notifications of violations from copyright licensees (fake notifications vs. real, valid, and legal ones?). You should expect to see the same type of “informal” censorship with SOPA, except with ENTIRE sites and domains.

Phi Beta Iota:  In other words, 99% screwed by the 1% without due process.