State Censorship by Copyright? Spanish Firm Abuses DMCA to Silence Critics of Ecuador's Government
If you say anything remotely critical about the Ecuadorian government, you may face a copyright takedown. A shady law firm in Spain called Ares Rights has been sending Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices on behalf of several Ecuadorian state officials, targeting documentaries, tweets, and search results that include images of those officials, alleging copyright infringement. Most of the companies receiving these requests, including Google, Twitter, and Vimeo, have unfortunately responded by automatically removing the content. Some have re-instated removed works after a successful counter-notice was filed by the uploaders.
In the 16 years since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed into law, we've seen all sorts of abuse and unintended consequences stemming from its more lopsided clauses. The safe harbors it creates for Internet service providers have provided useful protections for service providers, but the takedown process it authorizes makes it too easy for bad actors to shut down legitimate speech. This is a clear example of that kind of abuse. Ares Rights has found a way to take advantage of US law in order to remove content that originated in Ecuador. According to state-run media outlets, there is no relationship between Ecuadorian officials and Ares Rights and yet the firm continues to send these notices on behalf of those individuals and agencies. It seems that either Ares Rights or the Ecuadorian government is lying about what's actually going on.
According to the Chilling Effects database, Ares Rights has been sending DMCA notices since 2010. They first attracted online media attention last summer when a reporter for BuzzFeed reported on a series of documents that revealed that the Ecuadorian government had purchased equipment for large-scale domestic surveillance. The Minister of Interior quickly denied the validity of the documents insisting they were all fabricated. The documents were initially posted on Scribd, but were taken down after Ares Rights sent a DMCA notice claiming “copyright” infringement. When BuzzFeed re-uploaded the documents to Dropbox, Ares Rights sent yet another DMCA notice, with the same outcome. BuzzFeed counter-noticed, and the files were re-instated.
In December 2012, the same firm sent notices to YouTube and Vimeo to take down a documentary about President Correa. Ares Rights claimed that the film contained “unauthorized images” from the state-operated TV channel, ECTV. YouTube ultimately found the notice to be invalid and has since re-posted the video. The following December, oil company Chevron also faced a takedown of their YouTube videos—again, following a DMCA notice from Ares Rights—which accused the Ecuadorian government of corruption amidst ongoing litigation over rainforest pollution.
One of the more recent controversial cases was when Twitter took down an image posted by a popular activist on Twitter following a notice from Ares Rights. The image was poking fun of the President’s weekly Saturday address, and the copyright claim was over the official government logo she used with a video still from the show, the Simpsons.
These are only a few examples of dozens of takedowns Ares Rights has sent over the last couple of years. All have involved works that comment on and attempt to reveal government misconduct.
If the Ecuadorian government really is not involved with Ares Rights, then it should denounce the firm and demand that they stop sending DMCA notices in the government’s name. Bogus copyright complaints like these threaten free expression on the Internet. On the other hand, if Ecuadorian officials are colluding with Ares Rights, then it is causing Internet censorship. This violates Article 13 of freedom of expression and thought of the American Convention on Human Rights, an international human rights treaty for the American hemisphere. More recently, Catalina Botero, the free expression watchdog of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has issued a landmark report on the Internet and freedom of expression. The report has established requirements that states must protect users’ freedom of expression and thought online by designing public policies and regulations that preserve the original architecture of the Internet and by working with private companies to enforce these rules.
Activists, journalists, and everyday people have a right to report on and critique their government, and public officials have a duty to promote factual information about their activities so that people can hold them accountable for their actions. We will continue to explore Ares Rights’ takedowns, and will be pressuring all the parties involved, including the Ecuadorian government, to immediately stop using copyright for political censorship.