Recently, while reviewing the public comments filed with the United States Copyright Office as it examines the need to promote Standard Technical Measures (STMs) to prevent digital copyright infringement (as one does), we noticed something peculiar. We were surprised to see that there were thousands of comments on such an obscure topic – but we were even more perplexed when we discovered that an extremely large percentage of those comments contained almost identical arguments, word for word, phrase for phrase.
We sat down to do some detective work. A trail of clues led us to a call-to-action from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization that defines itself as a defender of “user privacy, free expression, and innovation.”
The call to action contained some very distinctive language. For example: “Filters can’t factor in context, so they routinely remove legal speech.” And they claim that measures to disrupt illegal activity online will harm “the public’s interest in fostering creativity and competition.”
Conveniently, EFF’s call to action included a button to “tell the Copyright Office who is really affected by filters.” And when we clicked that button, we were presented with a form letter that included the language above.
Some might call this “free expression.” Others might call it “parroting anti-copyright propaganda from Silicon Valley.” One might reasonably think that since EFF champions free expression, it would not try to tip the scales in a public discourse with spam.
But sadly, the EFF doesn’t appear to care much about free expression. Rather, it would seem its goal is to whip people into a frenzy every time the federal government tries to hold online businesses to the same standards as offline ones.
And, of course, this is not the first time we’ve seen this tactic from anti-copyright activists.
In 2011, there were two important pieces of pro-copyright legislation – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) – being considered by Congress. Shockingly (not), the EFF, alongside Big Tech and other anti-copyright activists, led the efforts to impede the legislation. In fact, they helped to facilitate a “protest blackout” that encouraged websites to go dark.
We saw this again in 2016, when the Copyright Office was beginning to study the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that were intended to reduce piracy. After several years, they concluded that the “original intended balance” of the DMCA “has been tilted askew” – against creatives and toward internet platforms.
Tech advocates didn’t like this either.
During the public comment period, EFF’s sister organization Fight for the Future (FFTF) programmed bots to spam the Copyright Office form. At a staggering rate, the comments complained that copyright was too strong and contributed to censorship. Ultimately, over 86,000 complaints were filed, each one pushing the exact same lie.
As legal scholar Tim Wu, now President Biden’s Special Assistant for Technology and Competition Policy, has written, “… flooding can be just as effective as more traditional forms of censorship.” When bots overwhelmed the Copyright Office with lies about copyright as censorship, FFTF was, in fact, actively engaging in censorship by flooding.
Our Free Speech is Their Red Herring
Fast forward to today, and EFF appears to be playing the same game that they played in 2011 and that FFTF played in 2016. As Yasha Levine explains, EFF has “EFF’d Up” the internet by abetting the rise of private Big Tech monopolies, remaining silent about corporate abuses of private data, and defending piracy.
In short, if there’s a lot you don’t like about the internet we have today, you can thank EFF.
When you look at EFF’s favorite examples of the use of STMs to stifle free expression, they are ludicrous. (And, by the way, since all the examples cited by EFF come from Google’s YouTube, one of EFF’s favorite benefactors, maybe EFF should just complain to them directly.)
EFF notes that certain technical measures occasionally backfire on rightsholders, blocking them from posting their own content. Examples include ten hours of white noise that was monetized by five other people via YouTube’s Content ID. Birdsong and a cat’s purr have become subjects of ownership disputes. The list goes on… but hey, EFF, is that really the best you’ve got?
EFF wants us to believe that a few embarrassing gaffes or disputes about ambient sound raise shocking free speech concerns. While they quibble over these minor incidents, we are trying to stop large-scale global piracy – which, according to the Chamber of Commerce, costs the American economy at least $29.2 billion and 230,000 jobs every year.
We’re so exhausted by EFF’s periodic outbursts about copyright as censorship, because the facts are unquestionably on our side. Creatives contribute over $1.5 trillion per year to the national GDP. All we want is for our livelihoods to have the same protections online as they do offline.
No one – and especially not EFF – should be allowed to shut down discussions by stoking irrational fears and disseminating high-volume disinformation. The hypocrisy of posing as impassioned defenders of free expression while flooding public discussions with junk opinions is absolutely untenable.
These kinds of tactics have so far deterred regulation of Big Tech, but the tide is turning. Congress is now taking a closer look at how the world’s largest internet companies are stifling innovation and harming creativity. Let’s preserve the real free expression that our creative communities champion, not spam bots and copy-pasted misinformation campaigns.
In other words, let’s un-EFF the internet. It’s fucking long overdue.