Archive for Free speech

Athens, GA Police Escort People From Gym Over Shirts Sympathetic to Alleged Murderers

From the Athens Banner-Herald comes a report of two people escorted by Athens, Georgia police officers from a high school basketball game because they wore t-shirts apparently sympathetic to alleged murderers.  The article does not suggest that either of the two expelled persons disrupted the event or otherwise acted unruly.  They simply wore t-shirts, one depicting a photograph of Andre Ruff smoking marijuana and the other depicting mug shots of Ruff and Cormaine Goss.  Both shirts included the slogan “free my family,” and one of the people wearing the shirts is apparently related to Goss.  Ruff and Goss were recently arrested on charges of murdering a student at the University of Georgia.

Read more

Stanford and California’s Confusing Leonard Law

Jason Willick of the Stanford Political Journal has a well-considered post criticizing Stanford’s recent suspension of a fraternity’s housing ‘privileges’ over an evening of patently offensive, misogynistic jokes. 1  Willick’s criticism effortlessly weaves themes of free speech, from the evolution of speech codes to Charlie Hebdo.  You should read it.

Were Stanford a public university, its suspension of the fraternity’s housing privileges would likely violate the First Amendment: uncouth, cringeworthy jokes do not fall within any exception to the First Amendment.  But Stanford is a private institution and a private institution can dictate what is acceptable discourse.

Except in California.  And definitely not when you’re Leland Stanford Junior University.  Because when you’re Stanford, a California judge has already explained this to you.

Read more

Notes:

  1. Stanford’s press release — which Willick rightly notes “presents the facts in the light most favorable” to Stanford — also chalks up its actions to a few other concerns, including reports of women being drugged, but concedes that these reports “could not be substantiated.”

Ares Rights: Our Acts On Behalf of Ecuador Are Private

Ares Rights is a Spanish firm which claims to act on behalf of various officials of and entities connected to the government of Ecuador, invoking American copyright law to target critics of Ecuador (or of Ares Rights) and demanding the removal of criticism, claiming a copyright interest.  They’ve made dubious claims against, among othersBuzzfeed for posting documents linking Ecuador’s government to the purchase of electronic spying equipment and Chevron for criticizing a lawsuit involving environmental abuses in the region.  Most targets, however, have been dissidents within Ecuador without the resources to easily contest Ares’ claims.

When questioned about whether Ares Rights actually represents the clients they claim, the firm demurs, vaguely citing Spanish privacy laws.  One of their purported clients, Ecuador’s state-owned television outlet ECTV, has denied having hired Ares Rights.  When the Washington Free Beacon criticized President Correa on the subject, Correa blasted the outlet as being “corrupt,” but never denied whether Ares Rights had been hired by his government.  It’s unclear whether Ares Rights actually represents Ecuador or any of the myriad officials it has claimed to represent, or if it’s acting on its own.  The former would be outrageous and the latter laughable, but either scenario should raise concerns about how easily copyright law — and in particular the DMCA — can be abused for political censorship.

In September, Ares Rights directed three DMCA takedown notices to my web host, demanding removal of an entire post because it contained “private and not public data” — that is, an “address, email and telephone” — and “a document with copyright.”  The complaint also implied that the post infringed on a trademark.  The post in question, however, had redacted any contact information and the ‘copyright’ in question arose from a composite image created by a newspaper which contained the logo of Ares Rights.

Worse, Ares Rights intoned: my post “makes a word game.”  My response to Ares Rights was fun to write, and my host declined to submit to their demands.

Yesterday, Ares Rights 1 tried its luck again, complaining to Twitter that I had tweeted an image linking Ares Rights to (what appears to be) a DMCA notice to Facebook targeting a critic of Ecuador’s government — a notice purportedly sent on behalf of Ecuador’s state-owned television station ECTV.  The complaint cited a violation of Twitter’s “rules regarding posting information or images that the individual claims as private.”  Twitter suspended my account until I promised to comply with the rules, then deleted the tweet in question.  That tweet and the complaint I received from Twitter are below.

The ‘private’ information consisted of an email address belonging to Ares Rights: a professional address associated with a firm purporting to act on behalf of the government of Ecuador.  That email address is easily found on the  Chilling Effects database of DMCA notices.

Twitter is, of course, free to establish their own rules and enforce them as they please.  Their sandbox, their rules. 2  But Ares Rights’ invocation of ‘privacy’ is a fig leaf.  The firm is engaging in a pattern and practice of cynically invoking laws or policies, whether in copyright or privacy, to attempt to harass and intimidate critics of Ares Rights or Ecuador.  I’m not the only critic of Ares Rights to be targeted in this manner.  Twitter has repeatedly yielded to these demands, so Ares Rights will continue to abuse them.

Read more

Notes:

  1. Ares Rights presumably sent the notice.  Twitter does not disclose the identity of the sender.  But what are the odds that someone else would be interested in a three-month-old tweet about Ares Rights?  And what are the odds that someone else is dedicated enough to do this to multiple critics of Ares Rights?  Given Ares’ record of invoking dubious policies to harass critics, I would be surprised if this were not Ares Rights.
  2. It’s also easy for me to complain.  I’m in the United States, where Ares Rights — or whoever they represent — can only reach me through frivolous threats and claims.  Journalists in Ecuador might face imprisonment were they to respond as sardonically as I have.

Ares Rights Adopts Matroyshka Doll Approach To Censorious DMCA Takedown Notices

I wrote about Ares Rights last week, criticizing (again) their use of frivolous DMCA takedown notices to attempt to remove content criticizing their firm or government officials in Ecuador and Argentina.

Ares Rights, answering my prayers, has now sent a frivolous DMCA takedown notice demanding the removal of my entire post, citing my alleged violation of Spanish privacy law for posting their address (which I didn’t)..  That’s right: Ares Rights is using an abusive DMCA notice to attempt to take down my post criticizing their use of DMCA notices to take down criticism of their censorious DMCA notices.  When you recover from reading that sentence, the DMCA notice (and my response) is below.

Update (9/3/2014): Ares actually sent three takedown notices at the same time, but my tech guy was laughing so hard at the first that he missed the other two, which are even more funny. As far as I can tell, the other two are identical, and based on the same, purposefully flawed logic (and content) of the takedown notice sent to Ecuadorian outlet PlanV.  The second and third DMCA — that is, Digital Millennium Copyright Act — notices claim that my use of this image, which had been created and posted by PlanV, constitutes trademark infringement:

censura-internet-interior_0

To make transparent their purposes, Ares Rights’ Luis Martinez says in these notices (“client” referring to me):

Your client acts as bad faith, since my logo is recognizable brand. Now,
your client makes a word game.

Your client acts in bad faith.

My tech guy had, thankfully, not yet sent my counter-notice.  So I’ve updated it with some more word games.

Read more

Ares Rights Wants Ecuador Journalists To Stop Talking About Ares Rights’ Censorious Abuse of Copyright

The Ares Rights saga is… bizarre. So, they’ve summoned Barbra Streisand to sing their song.  After substantial attention to the firm’s abuse of copyright law to censor political dissidents (and, er, international oil conglomerates), Ares Rights has deployed a DMCA (copyright) takedown notice against an Ecuadorian news outlet targeting their coverage of Ares Rights’ censorious abuse of copyright.

Read more

Yale’s Censorship of Student Reviews Rings Hollow Before Falling to Student Innovation

In a series of moves unbecoming of an institution of higher learning, Yale this month effectively shuttered a student-designed website that allowed students to consider course evaluations when selecting their courses.

A Yale student named Sean Haufler (more on him below) writes:

In January 2012, two Yale students named Harry Yu and Peter Xu built a replacement to Yale’s official course selection website. They it called YBB+ (Yale Bluebook Plus), a “plus” version of the Yale-owned site, called Yale Bluebook. YBB+ offered different functionality from the official site, allowing students to sort courses by average rating and workload. The official Yale Bluebook, rather, showed a visual graph of the distribution of student ratings as well as a list of written student reviews. YBB+ offered a more lightweight user interface and facilitated easier comparison of course statistics. Students loved it. A significant portion of the student body started using it.

After two years, Yale decided it no longer liked the innovative website and abruptly blocked access to it during course registration.  Students were instead greeted with this screen:

Read more

Ares Rights Continues Questionable DMCA Censorship For Ecuador, Targets Chevron

Ares Rights, An Unproductive Exercise In Censorship By DMCA

In June, I wrote about Ares Rights, a Spanish firm being used by Ecuador’s government to censor dissidents by way of meritless copyright claims. Their technique is as unproductive as it is reckless: Ares Rights issues a DMCA takedown notice — utilizing an American law — targeting material that is clearly a fair use of insubstantial content created by (or related to) state-sponsored media outlets.  The offending material is briefly taken offline and then made public again once the targeted dissident (and the host of the material) catches on.  It’s hard to divine what goal Ares Rights (and Ecuador) think this abuse serves, leaving only the conclusion that the practice serves only to harass dissidents.

Ares Rights’ DMCA notices have targeted (among other things) Rosie Gray’s reporting on Ecuador’s spy program for Buzzfeed, a documentary critical of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, and photoshops accusing the father of Ecuador’s vice president of rape. ((That’s not to cherry-pick a few questionable DMCA notices from the known Ares Rights claims: I can’t find even a single reasonably legitimate copyright claims pursued by Ares Rights on behalf of Ecuador or another South American state.)) What limited success Ares Rights has achieved has been erased, and then some, as two of Ecuador’s newspapers (El Comercio and El Universo) have since criticized the practice.

The Bigger They Are, The Dumber It Is To Hit Them: Ares Meets Chevron

Now, Ares Rights is reportedly targeting Chevron ((Yes, the multinational oil conglomerate worth twice as much as the GDP of most South American nations, including Ecuador.)) over videos critical of an Ecuadorian judge’s 2011 ruling that Chevron was liable for $9 billion in damages resulting from rainforest pollution. Chevron has contested that ruling in a New York lawsuit, claiming (among other things) that the American plaintiff’s attorney who pursued the case blackmailed the Ecuadorian judge.

In the court of public opinion, Chevron has pursued a comparably aggressive approach, launching “The Amazon Post“, a blog documenting in some detail the American case and coverage of it. The corporation also provided videos on its YouTube account, “TexacoEcuador“.

According to a post on its “Amazon Post” blog, Chevron notes that readers “may have noticed that our videos on The Amazon Post are currently down” (well, no: the videos generally don’t have too many views, which makes the takedown even more dumbfounding, because now they will get more views). Chevron says that their videos were removed from YouTube at the behest of a complaint from Ares Rights in “late November.”

The notice on the dispatched YouTube videos indicates that they were removed “due to a copyright claim by Filmin”, likely referring to Spanish movie website filmin.es, a corporation Ares Rights apparently has unknown involvement with. What content, exactly, filmin.es owns that was used in Chevron’s videos is unclear, and it’s possible — perhaps likely — that filmin.es doesn’t own any content at issue, and is simply being used as a vehicle to censor a critic of Ecuador.

If Ecuador Can Censor Chevron, It Can Censor You

Some may balk at the notion that we should be worried about Chevron’s YouTube videos, and may insist — perhaps rightly — that videos produced by Chevron to bolster its public relations should be taken with a hefty grain of salt. These aren’t relevant considerations. We value the ability to speak, not whether the speaker deserves to be heard or believed, irrespective of whether the speaker is a corporate behemoth or a lone pamphleteer heralding the imminent fracking doomsday. A government abusing the law — whether its own law or that of another country — to intimidate critics of any sort is a danger to critics of every sort.

Chevron, for its part, has something many critics of Ecuador don’t: the resources to make Ares Rights pay for its censorious transgressions by pursuing a §512(f) claim for their abusive tactics.  Hopefully it will exercise them: it may not be a risk Chevron faces in the future, but it would sure draw more attention to the videos Ares Rights sought to memory-hole.

I’ve reached out to Chevron and filmin.es for comment. ((And sweet, sweet crude oil, which is probably a safer investment than BitCoins.)) I’ll update this post should I receive any further information.

Judge Orders Twitter to Unmask Parody of City Councilman for Criminal ‘Impersonation’

Via The Dispatch of Starkville, Mississippi, a local judge has apparently ordered Twitter to reveal account information relating to a parody account of David Little, an Alderman (city councilman to us west-coasters) for the city of Starkville.  If the order by Judge Jim Kitchens is as reported by the Dispatch, I doubt the order can withstand First Amendment scrutiny, and perhaps opens those pursuing it to civil liability.

(While I focus on dry legal analysis here, the Dispatch article is worthwhile for raising this fun question: why is someone pretending to be a journalist and giving the cell phone number of a detective investigating the case to one of the parody account users?)

The Dispatch reports:

The order is related to a Starkville Police Department criminal investigation into the satirical @DavidLittleBOA Twitter account, which documents show was later changed to @DavidLittleFake.

No charges had been filed in the case as of Tuesday.

The order, signed by Judge Jim Kitchens, cites Miss. Code Annotated 97-7-43[.]

The cited statute reads:

Whoever falsely and willfully assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the State of Mississippi or any department, agency or officer thereof; or of any county, municipality or any other subdivision of the State of Mississippi, or of any department, agency or officer of such county, municipality or subdivision, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and punished for each separate such offense by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500.00) or by imprisonment of not more than six (6) months in jail, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

As written, the statute is substantially overbroad, depending on how “acting under the authority of” is interpreted.  In many cases, this won’t be an issue: the defendant might be suspected of pretending to be a police officer, for example, in an attempt to induce others to rely on his status as a police officer (or other official).  That is not the case with a parody account on Twitter: the intent is to impugn and assail the official, not to convince the public that he’s issuing edicts on Twitter.  How, exactly, can an alderman act under the authority of the state on Twitter?

If the statute is not interpreted to encompass a requirement of proof of either some cognizable harm or an intent to induce harm, it likely runs afoul of the recent United States v. Alvarez, wherein a plurality of the Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which prohibited false statements that the speaker had been awarded various military honors.  There, as here, the law did not require any proof of an intent to induce some harm or a showing of actual harm.  Simply because a statement is false does not mean it is unprotected speech.  Sometimes, as in parody assailing an elected official, the false statement is deserves protection because it is false.

It may very well be that the parody account made some objectively false and defamatory statement about Alderman Little.  We don’t know because the account was deleted after the criminal investigation began.  If there were such false statements, made with malice, that damaged Little, he could certainly ask the court to unmask the parody account in a civil action.

But that might require application of the Dendrite approach to determining whether an anonymous online user should be revealed by judicial process.  That approach requires, among other things, notice to the prospective defendant, specifying what act the defendant engaged in, and weighing whether the plaintiff’s claims outweigh the speaker’s interest in remaining anonymous.

I doubt anything like that standard was followed in the criminal proceedings, given the absurdity of using the impersonation statute as a basis for unmasking the parodist.  I am, however, attempting to obtain a copy of the documents and court order, and have sought comment from Alderman Little.  I’ll update this post should either be forthcoming.

Spanish Firm Abusing Copyright to Censor Spying Documents Has Ties to Ecuador’s Government

Amidst the furor over the drip-drip-drip of NSA spying allegations and rumors that Edward Snowden would seek asylum in Ecuador, Buzzfeed journalist Rosie Gray published a series of documents concerning Ecuador’s intellgience service, SENAIN.  According to the documents, Ecuador purchased telephonic monitoring equipment and was monitoring the online communications of opposition political figures and journalists.

Ecuador’s Minister of the Interior responded on June 27, suggesting that the documents were a “fabrication”, although he conceded that Ecuador has sought to purchase surveillance equipment, which he bizarrely claimed had solved “100 percent of kidnapping cases.”  He issued a further warning: “We invite the national or international press to demonstrate one single case of groundless wiretapping.You have 24 hours to do so, or you will be determined to be liars.”

What followed, however, appears to contradict the claims of Ecuador’s government that the documents were a “fabrication.”  The same day, the documents posted by Buzzfeed were removed from document-sharing site Scribd.com due to a copyright claim by a small firm named Ares Rights, an anti-piracy outfit based in Spain.

This is not the first time that Ares Rights has worked at the apparent behest of Ecuador’s government — and possibly the government of Argentina — to attempt (and fail) to censor embarrassing media online.

Read more

City Tries, Fails to Convince Judge to Order Video of Officer’s Embarassing Testimony Removed from the Internet

The City of Collinsville, Illinois really doesn’t want people to see a video of one of its police officers admitting to some questionable training practices.  So much so that it tried (and failed) to convince a judge to issue a protective order requiring that the video be stricken from the internet.

Read more