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Whatever the Response to the Facebook Fallout, Don’t Blame Copyright

by David Newhoff —

Attorney and journalist Charles J. Glasser published an editorial in The Daily Caller titled: Mind Manipulation? No, Censorship By Copyright is The REAL Threat to Elections.

The irony of that misleading headline, which does not truly reflect the substance of Glasser’s article, is that it reinforces a general bias about copyright (i.e. that it is censorship) for the simple reason that many people will not read past the headline itself. Thus, even before we get to the article, Glasser has, ironically enough, proven that the “mind manipulation” issue (though I wouldn’t call it that) is a legitimate problem.  He believes otherwise, stating …

“I have serious doubts about the veracity about “mind control” conspiracies favored by the progressive left that assumes Americans are not autonomous actors or are in fact stupid, gullible hicks who simply can’t be trusted to think for themselves.”

I’ve expressed a similar sentiment on this blog but take a different view that people across the political spectrum are both autonomous actors and stupid, gullible, hicks who can’t be trusted to think for themselves because everybody is, to some degree, susceptible to impressions made by words and pictures. If this were not the case, advertising simply would not work. But it does.

This susceptibility has nothing to do with intelligence, but it is a more relevant subject now that we acquire news and commentary via social media. We simply cannot read every article shared by every one of our friends, or we would never do anything else. Nevertheless, all those headlines and photos do leave impressions—even subconscious ones that function exactly like advertising. This is one reason why I think Glasser is wrong to outright dismiss the conversation finally being had about “manipulation” via social media—even if there were no party actively seeking to manipulate.

Meanwhile, his headline, feeding the false narrative–perhaps inadvertently–that copyright equals censorship, is a bit overwrought given the article’s central complaint. Glasser asserts that various parties are abusing the DMCA takedown provision for the purpose of censorship, and, in turn, this censorship is skewing the democratic process. Not helping the article’s credibility is the quote from Elliot Harmon of the EFF as stating, “…without fair use protections, people and companies in the public eye could use copyright law to ban coverage that’s critical of them.”

That’s overstating the relationship between criticism and fair use just a tad since a whole universe of criticism exists without appropriating copyrighted works.  In fact, I would argue the most important political criticism — thoughtful, researched editorials about candidates or policies — often don’t rely on fair use at all.  What does rely on fair use are the political ads to which Glasser refers in his article; and while it is perhaps inappropriate that these were removed, political ads are hardly the thinking American’s medium of choice.

Without unpacking each of the examples to which Glasser alludes, we can stipulate that various parties do use, or try to use, DMCA takedown as a means to silence opposition or criticism; and he fairly calls the practice a “pox on both houses,” meaning the left and the right. But I would offer a few caveats about this article.

First, because DMCA is an extra-judicial, sometimes automated, process, it’s going to be misused—either purposely or by accident—by rights holders, by non-rights holders, by users, and by platform owners. It is a 1998 remedy for copyright infringement and OSP liability that, at best, cannot truly respond to the scope of the contemporary internet. It is a unique sub-category of copyright law with its own complex narrative, and Glasser seems to be cherry-picking a small portion of that narrative to justify an article that lodges various unrelated complaints.  He also fails to mention the DMCA counter-notice procedure for restoring material and the fact that there is a path of legal remedy for abuse of DMCA.

Next, Glasser seems to have a personal or political beef with the current response to these data-mining revelations that, whether he’s right or wrong, should not be misdirected as an attack on copyright law. He writes …

“The panic about data-mining is driven largely by the paternalistic, if not authoritarian view that ‘only the right people’ should determine what is read and heard, because after all, those ‘bitter clingers’ are too stupid to have a voice.”

Responding as someone who criticizes ‘bitter clingers’ on the left and the right, I fail to see how this accusation does not imply a much bigger debate that has nothing to do with copyright. It seems that DMCA is being made into a  scapegoat in this regard, which brings me to the most substantive point.

In a society now brimming with equal parts journalism and gibberish, we would need a much larger data set than a few anecdotes to conclude that censorship by DMCA is both rampant and measurably effective in what I will generously call our current “political process.” In fact, Glasser’s own skepticism about data-mining manipulation should also serve to mollify his stated concerns about censorship via DMCA because I strongly suspect that incidents of abuse represent a drop in the bucket among the trillions of information exchanges occurring every day. And if Americans are indeed autonomous actors who can think for themselves, this should counterbalance the silence of a few deleted political ads as easily as Glasser suggests it would counterbalance the alleged “mind control.”  So, whatever he’s truly criticizing, I don’t think it’s copyright.

This article was published on The Illusion of More.