On Wednesday of last week, the Wall Street Journal published a story detailing yet another episode of Twitter removing tweets from its platform following “complaints.” This time, the complainant was the American Petroleum Institute, which reached out to Twitter when people posted data from a report for which its subscribers pay $160 per month.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The same situation has played out a few times in recent months, just with different players. Last October, Twitter suspended two accounts following complaints from the NFL and the UFC alleging that the accounts were violating copyright by posting GIFs. And in December, Twitter deleted tweets posted by a Business Insider editor following a complaint from Bank of America Merrill Lynch that he posted part of their research documents.
Read the top line, and you might think these companies complain to Twitter, which then mashes the delete button on the offending tweet. But that’s not exactly how it works. The “complaints” were all filed as takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998 law meant to limit the spread of piracy on the internet.
Under the DMCA, rights holders can file takedown notices to service providers when they believe their users are distributing copyrighted material without permission. Once a "service provider,” such as Twitter, receives a DMCA notice for takedown, they can choose to remove the allegedly violating material and be exempt from related legal action from the company filing the notice. If they refuse to remove the material, then they can be sued for hosting it.
Twitter, according to its transparency report, complied with about 71% of the DMCA requests it received in the second half of 2015.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has actually been helpful for speech on the internet given that it protects platforms when their users infringe on copyrights.
"Without these protections the risk of potential copyright liability would prevent many online intermediaries from providing services such as hosting and transmitting user-generated content,” the EFF’s website says. "Thus the safe harbors, while imperfect, have been essential to the growth of the Internet as an engine for innovation and free expression.”
If someone believes material they tweeted was taken down unfairly, they are allowed to file a counter-notice that, after a certain time period, requires that the content be restored unless the copyright owner files a court order.
DMCA takedown notices, of course, can also be used as weapons, employed by companies to hit competitors or reporters they don’t like, for instance. They’ve also been used by people with no rights to certain content in attempts to remove it simply because these people didn’t like what they saw. “We’ve seen a rash of people abusing the DMCA lately, attempting to take down legitimate criticism and commentary online,” EFF staff attorney Jason Schultz said in 2007.
But given the context, while it may seem like Twitter is cowing to corporate interests, in many cases it’s simply acting within the framework of DMCA, taking steps to protect copyright and keep itself solvent by avoiding lawsuits. And that’s why Twitter took down those tweets, a headline that you should expect to continue seeing with regularity.