Web Takedown Notices: Punish the Monkey

Here isone letter that you don’t want to receive: "You are currently hostingwebsite content that contains our proprietary information. We demand that youtake down the posting immediately."

I guess Iam fortunate that I have only received one takedown notice in all my years ofbuilding and running various publication Web sites.

This pastmonth we’ve seen a lot of judges and lawyering up to try to remove various Webcontent — ranging from a video of teens brawling in upstate New York todocuments from a Swiss bank that supposedly show offshore money laundering, toeven a game of Scrabble that is played on Facebook. It is sad to see,ineffective, and a waste of everyone’s time.

Almostalways a takedown notice is a mistake, because all it does is focus attentionon the about-to-be-banned content and motivate others to post it elsewhere. Weeven have a term for this, called "The Streisand Effect."

Techdirt’sMike Masnick coined the term on his popular technology blog after the actressBarbra Streisand’s 2003 lawsuit seeking to remove satellite photos taken of herMalibu house. Those photos were part ofa series of thousands of pictures that were taken along the entire California coastline, so imagine even if youknew Streisand’s street address it would be somewhat of an effort to try tolocate the specific picture.

As aresult of the attention from the lawsuit, her photo is now easily accessibleand notorious. So the effect of the legal action just promotes theaccessibility of the content that the lawyers are trying to ban.

Thecourtroom antics of last month around the Swiss bank brought the notion oftakedowns to a new level of ridiculousness. Here, we have lawyers in a California courtroom trying to pull the plugon an entire Web site (Wikileaks.org) because of one posting of the site thatwas subject to the legal wrangling. This was more than just a takedown notice,it was to terminate the domain entirely, and remove any DNS records pointing tothe site.

Thebank’s lawyers went this route because the site’s registrar was a US corporation, unlike the site, itsstaff and its hosting provider who were all located in various other countries.Eventually, the courts reversed themselves, realizing that they didn’t havejurisdiction. By then, multiple mirror sites were created with the bannedcontent. And the court themselves realized this, from their ruling:

"Thepress generated by this Court?s action increased public attention to the factthat such information was readily accessible online. The Court is not convincedthat Plaintiffs have made an adequate showing that any restraining injunctionin this case would serve its intended purpose."

In my owncase, the takedown was related to a speech that was given at a conference, andour article had copies of the presentation slides that were removed by theconference organizers at the request of the vendors involved. The lawyersclaimed the content was proprietary and the presenter was "not authorizedto distribute it" at the conference. Again, by the time we took theinformation off our site, it had been picked up elsewhere around the Internet.

It istime to stop punishing the monkey, and realize that there are better solutionsthan takedowns. The term comes from the wonderful lyrics of guitarist MarkKnopfler. If you haven’t heard the song, it is worth givinga listen. Here are some of the lyrics:

You’vebeen talking to a lawyer

Are yougonna pretend

That youand your employer

Are stillthe best of friends?

Somebody’sgoing to take the fall

There’syour quid pro quo

The bosshas hung you out to dry

And itlooks as though

They’llpunish the monkey

And let the organ grinder go