Liability for Thee but not for Me

Many years ago, my boss at a tech startup received a letter from Comcast accusing us of sharing copyrighted content. This was before home broadband, and employees were taking advantage of 10-gigabit work internet to download pirated movies over Bittorrent.

The letter listed a whole bunch of pornographic titles among the infringing content, and we all learned an important lesson about VPNs. Our manager taped the letter to the office fridge as a passive-aggressive warning to never do it again.

Why the hell was our internet service provider deputized to enforce copyright law? Because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act imposes indirect liability on any service that facilitates copyright infringement, and a broadband provider is guilty by association1. The DMCA is very different from Section 230, which grants internet service providers immunity from user content. Section 230 is why Twitter can’t be sued for hate speech, and Amazon isn’t held liable for products that spontaneously combust. They’re just a neutral platform, man. (Note that this defense did not work for Ross Ulbricht. It only works for rich people.)

For lack of better options, copyright claims have become a de facto tool for censorship. It costs $10 to send a DMCA takedown notice; thousands to sue for libel. People have been trying to get Trump banned from Twitter for years, but only managed to get Trump’s tweets deleted through copyright complaints.

The cost of defamation lawsuits is a feature, not a bug. It allows billionaires like Peter Thiel to bankrupt their opponents even if the case is stupid. And maybe we like Peter Thiel because he’s on Team Bitcoin, but the same thing is happening right now where Craig “Faketoshi” Wright is suing Peter McCormack for calling him a fraud, and BSV people are suing various exchanges for refusing to list their shitcoin as “Bitcoin”. The goal is not to recover damages; it’s to inflict as much pain as possible on the defendant so that future critics will remain silent2.

In a post-Section 230 world, social media platforms might make libel claims as easy as a DMCA takedown. More censorship is bad, but existing defamation laws are unevenly enforced. Might as well democratize it. Might even catalyze a shift to decentralization.

1. And that’s why GitHub removed Youtube-dl, a helpful python script for schoolchildren to download lecture videos from Youtube. Among other things.

2. This practice is so common that many states have enacted anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statutes to shift the burden of the lawsuit to the plaintiff. But that makes it harder for poor people to sue.

The government can weaponize legal costs too. Operation Chokepoint was a DoJ initiative to “investigate” banks who did business with firearm dealers, payday lenders, and other politically incorrect companies. Many financial institutions dropped legitimate customers to avoid the hassle.

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