Byte Rights: Anatomy of a Chilled Internet

Maximum PC Staff

Imagine you got a letter that said you had to take down your blog or Facebook page, or spend thousands lawyering up. That sensation running down your spine? It has a name in the legal world. It’s called a chilling effect. A legal threat doesn’t have to go to court to be effective. Most would-be defendants don’t want the hassle and expense of going to court, and so capitulate to threats, even invalid ones. In 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act opened a whole new field of legal nastygrams. The DMCA takedown is particularly easy to send—it allows people who can fake vague legalese to take down just about anything on the U.S. Internet that’s unguarded by a phalanx of lawyers, giving the trolls that discover it unprecedented power. With international treaties like ACTA, we’re trying to bring this feature to everyone else’s Internet.

After the DMCA passed, law professor Wendy Seltzer (then of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) decided to make a home for these nastygrams, and called it the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse. It was to help people understand the impact of legal threats, and help those who got them to understand their rights. “We’ve now posted more than 20,000 cease-and-desists, almost all of them DMCA complaints to Google,” says Seltzer. In 10 years it’s created a rich dataset, through which people can study how the law gets used. “Chilling Effects the project doesn’t make value judgments about the letters it posts. Some of them target speech that’s clearly lawful. Others, wholesale reproductions of copyrighted works; many others, something in between.” The archive is available at http://chillingeffects.org/ . She’d like to get more letters, in particular from companies like Facebook and Bing, where takedown isn’t transparent.

Researchers working on the Clearinghouse data have found many takedowns aimed at hobbling business competitors, silencing critics, or in some cases, ranting nonsensically. But because we only get notices from Google, we can’t really know how widespread fake-o ranty takedowns are. We don’t know how effective they’ve been at scaring ideas and businesses out of existence—probably too effective.

Quinn Norton writes about copyright for Wired News and other publications. Her work has ranged from legal journalism to the inner life of pirate organizations.

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