Nations that limit access to the Internet violate a human right which has become essential to life in the 21st century: the freedom of speech and communication through the Internet. A lack of censorship within this digital platform is a precondition to efficient Internet communications, and modifications to this norm impinge on some basic democratic norms.
Universal Music Group’s (UMG) recent prosecution of the Hong Kong-based online storage site MegaUpload—a site well known for illegally hosting copyright material—demonstrates how corporations are seeking to limit Internet freedoms.
On 9 December 2011, MegaUpload posted a self-promotional video on YouTube which included a number of UMG artists such as Kanye West, Will.I.Am, Jamie Foxx, Sean Combs, Alicia Keys, and Chris Brown. YouTube acted fast and removed the video.
Normally, YouTube removes videos only after a copyright holder requests such removal—in accordance to guidelines laid out in the United States Digital Millennium and Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA aims to protect both copyright and Internet freedoms, and copyright holders who abuse DMCA taked-own procedures are required to pay large monetary fines.
In this case, YouTube overstepped DMCA guidelines, as UMG and DMCA had a pre-existing agreement regarding copyrighted property. In response to YouTube’s action, MegaUpload filed a lawsuit, a temporary restraining order, and a preliminary injunction against UMG for violating DMCA provisions.
On 15 December 2011, a judge gave UMG twenty-four hours to explain its actions: MegaUpload claimed that its right to free speech had been violated. It stated that Universal had “chosen to sabotage MegaUpload’s promotional campaign, effectively censoring [MegaUpload’s] ability to convey [its] message with [its] own original content... [despite the fact that] a significant number of today’s top recording artists actively support [its] services.”
In its response, UMG claimed that the take-down was not governed by the DMCA, but by a separate agreement with Youtube which gives UMG the right to block or remove videos directly. In its own court filing, UMG stated that “the UMG-YouTube agreement grants UMG rights to effect the removal of user-posted videos through YouTube’s Content Management System (CMS), based on a number of contractually-specified criteria that are not limited to the infringements of copyrights owned or controlled by UMG.”
These “criteria” have not been made public.
In other words, UMG has a private agreement with YouTube, which apparently exists outside of the DMCA. This allows UMG to remove content from YouTube, even when the content does not infringe on UMG copyrights. Undoubtedly, this is an unabashed form of censorship.
It is unclear whether whether YouTube has similar agreements with other corporations. It is clear, however, that the UMG-Youtube agreement has a score of unexplored implications for corporate Internet censorship and Internet freedoms. The fact that this agreement remained publicly unknown until MegaUpload filed its lawsuit is questionable and arguably, unethical. Internet users have a right to information regarding agreements between corporations, especially when these agreements directly affect them.
The video in question has been restored on YouTube pending the results of legal proceedings. However, the case reveals a need for international provisions regarding Internet freedoms, as national rules appear to be insufficient when large corporations and websites such as UMG and YouTube are not based out of one country.
If the Internet is to continue to be a tool that fosters free speech and communication, it must be specified what freedom on the Internet actually consists of. At the very least, private agreements such as the the UMG-YouTube contract must be made publicly known, to create a more elaborate picture of how the internet landscape is currently governed by negotiations between various megacorporations.