This is one of the longest running debates over the internet, and I don’t know how to resolve it. But I wanted to chew it over as an example of the high-stakes fights over internet expression that most of us don’t often think about.
Vice News has recently reported on several instances of police officers playing songs on their phones while bystanders record interactions with them. Civil rights activists have said that they believe this is an effort to ensure that the videos will be taken down from websites like Instagram and YouTube.
Many internet companies have automated systems that block people from posting material that contains popular songs or movie clips. Sites like Google and Facebook also handle billions of requests each year from people, organizations and companies big and small to remove material that they say belongs to them and that they didn’t give permission for others to post.
This is all in response to a 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which requires online companies to remove copyrighted material. There are many gripes about how the law has played out.
Big entertainment companies in particular frequently say that the law and the ways that internet companies enforce it are too lax about pulling down material that they believe is improperly posted online. They also don’t like having to make so many requests to enforce their copyrights.
As we’ve seen from Vice’s reporting, some digital rights activists and smaller fish in music and entertainment effectively say the opposite — that internet companies’ copyright policing too often errs in ways that protect powerful institutions or removes newsworthy information from the public record.
Writing laws is difficult. The DMCA shows that it’s even harder for laws related to the internet to both keep up with people’s fast-changing habits and get enforcement right.