October 2, 2022

Criminal Copyright Sanctions as a U.S. Export

The copyright industries’ mantra that “digital is different” has driven an aggressive, global expansion in criminal sanctions for copyright infringement over the last two decades. Historically speaking, criminal penalties for copyright infringement under U.S. law date from the turn of the 20th century, which means that for over a hundred years (from 1790 to 1897), copyright infringement was exclusively a civil cause of action. From 1897 to 1976, there were criminal penalties, but only misdemeanor ones. In 1976, felony penalties were introduced, but only for repeat offenders. Following enactment of the 1976 Copyright Act, the pace of amendments expanding criminal liability greatly accelerated—a trend that more or less coincided with the PC revolution. In 1982, felony penalties were extended to some first-time offenses, but not for all types of copyrighted works. In 1992, felony penalties were extended to all types of works. In 1997, as the commercial Internet was beginning its exponential growth, the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act eliminated a longstanding requirement of commercial motive for criminal liability, making some infringements criminally actionable even if they are undertaken without any expectation of financial gain. Under the NET Act, a willful infringer acting without any commercial motive faces up to three years in prison for reproducing or distributing as few as 10 unauthorized copies of a copyrighted work.

As criminal penalties have ballooned domestically, they have also been expanding internationally.  The international expansion in criminal copyright liability has occurred in part (and increasingly) through the vehicle of plurilateral and bilateral trade agreements. The United States uses its negotiating leverage in the trade policy arena to pressure trading partners, particularly less powerful ones, to incorporate strict IP norms into their domestic law.   [Read more…]

Google Threatens to Leave China

The big news today is Google’s carefully worded statement changing its policy toward China. Up to now, Google has run a China-specific site, google.cn, which censors results consistent with the demands of the Chinese government. Google now says it plans to offer only unfiltered service to Chinese customers. Presumably the Chinese government will not allow this and will respond by setting the Great Firewall to block Google. Google says it is willing to close its China offices (three offices, with several hundred employees, according to a Google spokesman) if necessary.

This looks like a significant turning point in relations between U.S. companies and the Chinese government.

Before announcing the policy change, the statement discusses a series of cyberattacks against Google which sought access to Google-hosted accounts of Chinese dissidents. Indeed, most of the statement is about the attacks, with the policy change tacked on the end.

Though the statement adopts a measured tone, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Google is angry, presumably because it knows or strongly suspects that the Chinese government is responsible for the attacks. Perhaps there are other details, which aren’t public at this time, that further explain Google’s reaction.

Or maybe the attacks are just the straw that broke the camel’s back — that Google had already concluded that the costs of engagement in China were higher than expected, and the revenue lower.

Either way, the Chinese are unlikely to back down from this kind of challenge. Expect the Chinese government, backed by domestic public opinion, to react with defiance. Already the Chinese search engine Baidu has issued a statement fanning the flames.

We’ll see over the coming days and weeks how the other U.S. Internet companies react. It will be interesting, too, to see how the U.S. government reacts — it can’t be happy with the attacks, but how far will the White House be willing to go?

Please, chime in with your own opinions.

[UPDATE (Jan. 13): I struck the sentence about Baidu’s statement, because I now have reason to believe the translated statement I saw may not be genuine.]

Watching Google's Gatekeepers

Google’s legal team has extraordinary power to decide which videos can be seen by audiences around the world, according to Jeffrey Rosen’s piece, Google’s Gatekeepers in yesterday’s New York Times magazine. Google, of course, owns YouTube, which gives it the technical ability to block particular videos — though of course so many videos are submitted that it’s impractical to review them all in advance.

Some takedown requests are easy — content that is offensive and illegal (almost) everywhere will come own immediately once a complaint is received and processed. But Rosen focuses on more difficult cases, where a government asks YouTube to take down a video that expresses dissent or is otherwise inconvenient for that government. Sometimes these videos violate local laws, but more often their legal status is murky and in any case the laws in question may be contrary to widely accepted free speech principles.

Rosen worries that too much power to decide what can be seen is being concentrated in the hands of one company. He acknowledges that Google has behaved reasonably so far, but he worries about what might happen in the future.

I understand his point, but it’s hard to see an alternative that would be better in practice. If Google, as the owner of YouTube, is not going to have this power, then the power will have to be given to somebody else. Any nominations? I don’t have any.

What we’re left with, then, is Google making the decisions. But this doesn’t mean all of us are out in the cold, without influence. As consumers of Google’s services, we have a certain amount of leverage. And this is not just hypothetical — Google’s “don’t be evil” reputation contributes greatly to the value of its brand. The moment people think Google is misbehaving is the moment they’ll consider taking their business elsewhere.

As concerned members of the public — concerned customers, from Google’s viewpoint — there are things we can do to help keep Google honest. First, we can insist on transparency, that Google reveal what it is blocking and why. Rosen describes some transparency mechanisms that are in place, such as Google’s use of the Chilling Effects website.

Second, when we use Google’s services, we can try to minimize our switching costs, so that moving to an alternative service is a realistic possibility. The less we’re locked in to Google’s service, the less we’ll feel forced to keep using those services even if the company’s behavior changes. And of course we should think carefully about switching costs in all our technology decisions, even when larger policy issues aren’t at stake.

Finally, we can make sure that Google knows we care about free speech, and about its corporate behavior generally. This means criticizing them when they slip up, and praising them when they do well. Most of all, it means debating their decisions — which Rosen’s article helpfully invites us to do.

Economic Growth, Censorship, and Search Engines

Economic growth depends on an ability to access relevant information. Although censorship prevents access to certain information, the direct consequences of censorship are well-known and somewhat predictable. For example, blocking access to Falun Gong literature is unlikely to harm a country’s consumer electronics industry. On the web, however, information of all types is interconnected. Blocking a web page might have an indirect impact reaching well beyond that page’s contents. To understand this impact, let’s consider how search results are affected by censorship.

Search engines keep track of what’s available on the web and suggest useful pages to users. No comprehensive list of web pages exists, so search providers check known pages for links to unknown neighbors. If a government blocks a page, all links from the page to its neighbors are lost. Unless detours exist to the page’s unknown neighbors, those neighbors become unreachable and remain unknown. These unknown pages can’t appear in search results — even if their contents are uncontroversial.

When presented with a query, search engines respond with relevant known pages sorted by expected usefulness. Censorship also affects this sorting process. In predicting usefulness, search engines consider both the contents of pages and the links between pages. Links here are like friendships in a stereotypical high school popularity contest: the more popular friends you have, the more popular you become. If your friend moves away, you become less popular, which makes your friends less popular by association, and so on. Even people you’ve never met might be affected.

“Popular” web pages tend to appear higher in search results. Censoring a page distorts this popularity contest and can change the order of even unrelated results. As more pages are blocked, the censored view of the web becomes increasingly distorted. As an aside, Ed notes that blocking a page removes more than just the offending material. If censors block Ed’s site due to an off-hand comment on Falun Gong, he also loses any influence he has on information security.

These effects would typically be rare and have a disproportionately small impact on popular pages. Google’s emphasis on the long tail, however, suggests that considerable value lies in providing high-quality results covering even less-popular pages. To avoid these issues, a government could allow limited individuals full web access to develop tools like search engines. This approach seems likely to stifle competition and innovation.

Countries with greater censorship might produce lower-quality search engines, but Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others can provide high-quality search results in those countries. These companies can access uncensored data, mitigating the indirect effects of censorship. This emphasizes the significance of measures like the Global Network Initiative, which has a participant list that includes Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Among other things, the initiative provides guidelines for participants regarding when and how information access may be restricted. The effectiveness of this specific initiative remains to be seen, but such measures may provide leading search engines with greater leverage to resist arbitrary censorship.

Search engines are unlikely to be the only tools adversely impacted by the indirect effects of censorship. Any tool that relies on links between information (think social networks) might be affected, and repressive states place themselves at a competitive disadvantage in developing these tools. Future developments might make these points moot: in a recent talk at the Center, Ethan Zuckerman mentioned tricks and trends that might make censorship more difficult. In the meantime, however, governments that censor information may increasingly find that they do so at their own expense.

DMCA Week, Part I: How the DMCA Was Born

Ten years ago tomorrow, on October 28, 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was signed into law. The DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions, which became 17 USC Section 1201, made it a crime under most circumstances to “circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to” a copyrighted work, or to “traffic in” circumvention tools. In the default case, the new law meant that a copyright holder who used DRM to control access to her copyrighted material could exercise broad new control over how her material was used. If an album or film were distributed with DRM allowing it to be played only on alternate Tuesdays, or only in certain geographic regions, then these limits enjoyed the force of law–to go around them might not involve a a violation of copyright per se, but it would involve circumventing the access control, an activity that the DMCA made a felony.

Over the course of this week, Freedom to Tinker will be taking stock of the DMCA. What do ten years’ experience tell us about this law in particular, and about technology law and policy more generally?

Today, I’ll focus on the law’s creation. It passed in the Senate by unanimous consent, and in the House by a voice vote. But as Jessica Litman, among others, has pointed out, there was a lively debate leading up to that seemingly consensus moment. As a starting point for discussion, I’ll briefly summarize chapters six through nine of her 2001 book, Digital Copyright: Protecting Intellectual Property on the Internet.

In the early days of the Clinton administration, as part of a broader effort to develop policy responses to what was then known as the “Information Superhighway,” a working group was convened under Patent Commissioner Bruce Lehman to suggest changes to copyright law and policy. This group produced a 267 page white paper in September 1995. It argued that additional protections were necessary because

Creators and other owners of intellectual property rights will not be willing to put their interests at risk if appropriate systems — both in the U.S. and internationally — are not in place to permit them to set and enforce the terms and conditions under which their works are made available in the NII [National Information Infrastructure] environment.

In its section on Technological Protection (from pages 230-234), the white paper offers the meat of its recommendation for what became section 1201, the anti-circumvention rules:

Therefore, the Working Group recommends that the Copyright Act be amended to include a new Chapter 12, which would include a provision to prohibit the
importation, manufacture or distribution of any device, product or component incorporated into a device or product, or the provision of any service, the primary purpose or effect of which is to avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate, or otherwise circumvent, without authority of the copyright owner or the law, any process, treatment, mechanism or system which prevents or inhibits the violation of any of the exclusive rights under Section 106. The provision will not eliminate the risk that protection systems will be defeated, but it will reduce it.

In its prediction that anti-circumvention law would “reduce” “the risk that protection systems will be defeated,” the white paper offers a concise statement of the primary rationale for section 1201. That prediction hasn’t panned out: the anti-circumvention rules were enacted, but did not meaningfully reduce the risk of defeat faced by DRM systems. The defeat of such systems is, despite the DMCA, a routine eventuality following their introduction.

As Professor Litman tells the story, the Lehman white paper’s recommendations met with domestic resistance, which prompted Lehman to “press for an international diplomatic conference in Geneva hosted by the World Intellectual Property Organizaton (WIPO).” The upshot was a new treaty incorporating many of the white paper’s elements. It required participating nations to “provide adequate legal protection and effective legal remedies against the circumvention of effective technological measures that are used by authors… [to] restrict acts… which are not authorized by the authors concerned or permitted by law.”

Did this treaty actually require something like the DMCA? Before the DMCA’s passage, copyright law already included secondary liability for those who knowingly “induce, cause, or materially contribute to” the infringing conduct of another (contributory infringement liability), or who have the right and ability to control the infringing actions of another party and receive a financial benefit from the infringement (vicarious infringement liability). Clear precedent, and subsequent decisions like MGM v. Grokster confirm that creators of infringement-enabling technologies can be held liable under copyright law, even without the DMCA. Nonetheless, the treaty’s language was clearly intended by its American framers and promoters to provide a rationale for the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions.

One impact of this maneuver was to allow the DMCA to be promoted under the rubric of harmonization—aside from its merits as policy, DMCA proponents could claim that it was necessary in order to meet American treaty obligations. The fact that Clinton administration negotiators had been instrumental in creating the relevant international obligations in the first place was lost in the noise. And overall, America’s interest in meeting its international obligations in the intellectual property arena is quite strong. The economics of patents, rather than of copyright, dominate: U.S. patent holders in pharmaceuticals, high technology and elsewhere find themselves fighting foreign infringement. U.S. legislators are therefore apt to assign very high priority to encouraging global compliance with the intellectual property treaty regime, regardless of concerns they may have about the details of a particular measure.

A second long term impact was to lead to DMCA-like laws around the world. Other countries often took a narrow reading of the treaty obligation and declined, based on it, to adopt anti-circumvention rules. But, perhaps emboldened by the success of the international-negotiations-first approach to copyright, the U.S. executive branch has used free trade negotiations as a wedge to force other countries to adopt DMCA-like statutes. Anti-circumvention requirements make surprising cameos in the United States’s bilateral free trade agreements with Jordan, Singapore, Chile, Australia and several other countries (more information here).

What lessons can we draw from this experience? First, it is a cautionary tale about international law. One often hears appeals to international law, in domestic political debates, that attach special normative value to the fact that a given provision is required by a treaty. These appeals may be generally justified, but the DMCA/WIPO experience at least argues that they deserve to be evaluated critically rather than taken at face value. Second, it serves as a powerful reminder that the unanimous votes leading to the passage of the DMCA mask an intricate series of negotiations and controversies.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the globalized birth of the DMCA provides a cautionary tale for the future. The currently proposed ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), is a next-generation treaty that would cover online piracy, among other matters. Its exact contents are under wraps–the public outcry and litigation that have surrounded the measure stem mostly from a leaked memo outlining possible principles for inclusion in the treaty. Proposals include creating or strengthening penalties for those who promote infringement non-commercially, and enhanced ability to seize and destroy infringing media at international borders. Absent the text of a proposed agreement, it’s hard to respond in detail to ACTA. But if the genesis of the DMCA teaches us anything, it is that these international agreements deserve close scrutiny. When an agreement is created in opaque, closed-door negotiations, and then presented to the legislature as a fait accompli, it deserves close and skeptical scrutiny.