Ecuador, having bargained away virtually all its oil production to China in return for low-interest loans to finance President Rafael Correa’s spendthrift populism, is in dire need of a new export. And the president seems to have found one: tyrannical censorship of his critics.
Correa’s increasingly novel inventions for suppressing free speech in his own country are doubtless the subject of much envious chatter whenever Iran, North Korea and the rest of the fellows get together for meetings of Despots R Us. His latest wrinkle: a proposed law that would criminalize wisecracks on Facebook, enforced by placing video cameras in every cybercafe in Ecuador.
But now Correa has gone international. He’s using phony copyright claims to force American companies like YouTube and Google to remove videos and documents that criticize his government.
Last month, more than 140 videos posted by Chevron abruptly vanished from YouTube, replaced by notices that said they were yanked due to copyright-infringement claims by a Spanish video-distribution company called Filmin.
Filmin didn’t specify what copyrights it owns on the videos for the excellent reason that it doesn’t have any. Nearly all of them were outtakes from a film called Crude, a documentary about an Ecuadorian lawsuit against Chevron over oil-drilling pollution.
Chevron’s attorneys won the legal right to view and disseminate the outtakes, which show various sleazy acts of behind-the-scenes collaboration between the plaintiffs, the Ecuadorian government and the supposedly neutral judicial authorities hearing the case.
But YouTube, like many Internet companies, doesn’t want to get dragged into a potentially expensive and time-consuming lawsuit over somebody else’s copyrights. So it simply took down Chevron’s videos without investigating Filmin’s claim.
What was Filmin’s motive? Adam Steinbaugh, a law-school graduate who writes an excellent blog about law and technology, discovered that Filmin is linked with another Spanish company called Ares Rights that frequently acts as a hired gun for Ecuador, filing numerous copyright complaints, ranging from dubious to absurd, against critics of Correa’s government.
Using a U.S. law known as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, Ares has claimed it owns everything from a mock wanted poster for the father of a Correa cabinet member accused of raping a child to a left-wing documentary criticizing the government for granting mining concessions to foreign companies.
(We pause here for a government-mandated warning that too much irony may be bad for your blood. Irony No. 1: Among the many documents Ecuador has tried to get kicked off the Internet is a series of reports from the country’s intelligence agency about its spying on, yes, the Internet. Which leads us to Irony No. 2: Wikileaker-in-Chief Julian Assange is holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, seeking political asylum for leaking U.S. government documents on, yes, the Internet.)
Flaky Third World regimes squashing their domestic opposition is not exactly news, of course. And a lot of people may find it difficult to get worked up about Correa pushing around a gazillionaire multinational corporation like Chevron, which is certainly big enough to defend itself.
But that misses the point. If Correa is willing to mess with a $200 billion corporation on the Internet, then he’s certainly not going to hesitate to mess with you.
Rosie Gray, a reporter for Buzzfeed.com, learned that when she published a story based on leaked government documents that revealed Correa is trying to buy surveillance drones and telecommunications devices that would allow his spies to monkey with people’s cell phones.
Ecuador promptly filed a copyright- infringement notice that got the documents supporting her story removed from the Internet. Gray posted them on a different site, and Ecuador got them yanked again.
“It was a pretty ham-fisted attempt to intimidate us and put the genie back in the bottle,” Gray told me this week. Only on her third try did she find a site, DocumentCloud.com, with the spine to stand up to Correa.
There’s another reason to care about this: If Correa gets away with using the Digital Millenium Copyright Act to jerk around his enemies, it won’t be long until others follow suit.
“And it won’t always be a foreign state,” says blogger Steinbaugh. “This abuse is growing. Any person or corporation can misuse this law to punish someone who criticizes them. It’s a real weakness in the law, which offers no incentive for Internet companies to question copyright-infringement claims, no matter how doubtful they are.” Unlike bananas and oil, this is an Ecuadorian export we can do without.