Self-Described Twitter Troll Ryan Hintze Discovers New Way to Troll Twitter: the DMCA

Let’s start by making one thing clear: you don’t own an article that is written about you, and if you do file a frivolous copyright claim about that article, you certainly don’t have a right to DMCA a tweet about that DMCA takedown.

As Luke O’Neil first reported in 2018, Ryan Hintze is a self-proclaimed Twitter troll. Hintze earned a reputation for following and then unfollowing users “thousands” of times in an effort to gain his own followers—a highly annoying practice that could only be stopped by permanently blocking Hintze. Since 2018, however, Hintze has graduated to a new form of Twitter abuse: the DMCA takedown.

After he received his 50th follow request from Hintze, O’Neil decided to investigate Hintze’s serial following/unfollowing habits.  Hintze agreed to an interview, provided O’Neil with background and quotes, and detailed (with pride) his Twitter trolling technique.  O’Neil published the article on in July of 2018, and tweeted a link to the article from his personal Twitter account.

Hintze’s account has since been suspended for violating Twitter’s rules, presumably due to his aforementioned behavior. And yet, two years after the Vice interview, he’s sending DMCA takedowns to any account that tweets a link to O’Neil’s article.  In June 2020, O’Neil received a takedown notice from Twitter, which flagged his tweet and 19 other users’ as copyright infringements.  The claims were clearly absurd—Hintze didn’t even bother to describe a fabricated copyright claim, instead alleging the DMCA violation was based on “defamatory use of my image and likeness without written permission.” Hint: defamation would be… defamation, not copyright infringement. Linking to an interview you voluntarily gave is neither, regardless.

But what happened next is what elevates Hintze to Hall of Shame status: O’Neil tweeted about the absurd DMCA takedown notice he received from Twitter, which prompted Hintze to submit another DMCA notice for the takedown tweet. 

Clearly, whatever disincentives are supposed to exist to prevent frivolous takedown claims are not working. Chances are Hintze either has no understanding of copyright law or was just trying to get rid of an article he regrets taking part in. Either way, he apparently has some understanding of just how easy it is to get something taken down using the DMCA.

O’Neil’s biggest fear isn’t that he’ll actually get sued; it’s that these claims will run him afoul of the “repeat infringer” policy that platforms must have to take advantage of the DMCA’s safe harbor. O’Neil has over 40 thousand followers, and Twitter is an important platform for writers, especially freelance ones who depend on it to share their work. Too many DMCA complaints, and O’Neil could find his whole account deleted.

In theory, O’Neil’s recourse is clear: file a counternotice, get the images restored, and get the copyright “strikes” cleared. In practice, that’s an intimidating step. To file a counternotice, O’Neil would need to provide his name, phone number, and address to Twitter, along with a written complaint.  A copy of this information would then be sent to Hintze.  Not only does this process take time, and subjects O’Neil to a potential legal battle, but it requires he disclose his personal information to the person he feels is harassing him. He could also hire a lawyer to send the counternotice for him and provide the lawyer’s contact information instead, but that presents its own obstacles.

This is a very real fear to have. Just last year, YouTube sued a person who sent bogus DMCA notices to YouTubers as part of an extortion scheme. When one exercised their right to file a counternotice, he reportedly used the personal information in the counternotice to “swat” them. (“Swatting” is a harassment technique that consists of calling in a fake emergency to 911, resulting in a large number of police officers, often with guns drawn, showing up to the target’s home.)  It’s not as if Hintze, in any of his Twitter troll forms, has shown himself to be overburdened with shame.

While notices are not that difficult to send, the average person finds the counternotice requirements and system to be, at best, off-putting. Even in a case as clear-cut as this one, the target would rather let the takedown stand than go through it.

June 24, 2020