Google Blocked An Article About Police From The Intercept... Because The Title Included A Phrase That Was Also A Movie Title

from the but-content-moderation-is-easy dept

A week before Christmas, Radley Balko published a typically excellent story about the police chief in Little Rock, Arkansas, Keith Humphrey. It's a good story, and you should read it. Humphrey, who was appointed police chief as part of a reformist campaign, has faced on ongoing campaign to try to take him down from stalwarts within the Little Rock police department, including a few others who wanted his job -- but mainly by the local police union, the Fraternal Order of Police. Anyway, what caught my attention was that a few days after the article went live, The Intercept reported that it had been removed from Google search due to a DMCA copyright takedown notice.

This raised a lot of eyebrows, including questions of whether or not some of the characters who come out of the story negatively were abusing the DMCA to get the story disappeared from Google. It also surprised some people who didn't realize that you could issue a DMCA complaint to Google to get something removed from search. Over the holidays, however, the actual story came out and it's even dumber and more pointless than you could have imagined, but it does highlight (yet again) just how incredibly broken the copyright system is these days.

First off, the "Google removal" bit is nothing new. Even though you might think that DMCA takedowns should only be handed to sites that actually host the content in question, hosts are only one part of the DMCA 512 rules. That's the part that most are familiar with, 512(c) with the rules for dealing with "information residing on systems or networks at direction of users." That's the part that has all the standard notification and takedown rules. But there's also 512(d), which is for "information location tools" and says that if such a tool is notified of infringement -- using the same method in 512(c) -- you have to "respond expeditiously to remove, or disable access to, the material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of infringing activity.

In other words, yes, if someone wants to block something from being found via Google, they can try to file a DMCA takedown claim, saying that the content is infringing. We've seen this used and abused plenty over the years. You may remember revenge pornster Craig Brittain who sought to use this system to get links to a bunch of articles about him removed from Google (this included the press release from the FTC about him settling with them for his sketchy revenge porn efforts). In fact, Brittain tried this multiple times.

Indeed, many copyright holding entities don't even bother to go after the hosting of infringing materials -- they find it more expedient to just have that content de-linked from Google. As Google notes in its transparency report, it has been asked to delete 5.5 billion URLs from its index. For what it's worth, elsewhere, Google has reported that the vast majority of URLs it is told to delete aren't even in its index -- but it's still pretty crazy. And while Google at least has a team that tries to review these requests, mistakes happen, because mistakes always happen at this scale.

In this case, this was clearly a mistake. But it's an incredibly stupid mistake, so it's worth highlighting. Notably, Google put the link to Balko's story back into Google a few hours after The Intercept publicly complained about it, but it took another week or so until the actual DMCA notice made its way to the Lumen Database where we could finally see just what caused it. Was it the annoyed Fraternal Order of Police in Arkansas? Or just other annoyed cops?

No. It was a cybersecurity company that is apparently really bad at it's job.

The notice came from Group IB a "cyber threat" company based in Singapore that claims to specialize in the "prevention of cyberattacks, online fraud, and IP protection." It claims to be an "industry-leading cybersecurity solutions provider" but it frankly looks like most of the other companies in the space which probably shouldn't exist. This notice was sent on behalf of a Russian firm: ООО "РАЗВЛЕКАТЕЛЬНЫЙ ОНЛАЙН-СЕРВИС." As far as I can tell this seems to translate into Online Entertainment Service Limited Liability Company -- about as generic a name as you can find. The company was only created in the summer of 2020, so it's a relatively new company.

And, apparently, it hired Group-IB to issue takedown notices for a bunch of Netflix shows and movies. From the notice, I would guess that the Russian company is supposed to be trying to take down Russian translations of these Netflix shows, because while all of the names listed in the notice are from Netflix, they're each listed with their English name... and their Russian name. And most of the URLs in the notice do appear to be to various sketchy film download sites. Also, in listing the "original URLs" (which are supposed to show the original copyright covered content), the notice lists both the American IMDB site URLs... and the Kinopoisk.ru links, which is a Russian IMDB-like site owned by Yandex, the big Russian internet company.

So, for example, the takedown for "Stranger Things" in this notice looks like this:

DESCRIPTION: series "Stranger Things / Очень странные дела" (2016)
ORIGINAL URLS:
01. https://www.kinopoisk.ru/series/915196/
02. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4574334

So... it's actually possible that this company was hired by Netflix, but that's not entirely clear. Still, how does this lead to The Intercept having its story taken out of Google? Well, one of the takedowns was for the film The Old Guard, which is a Netflix production starring Charlize Theron, released in 2020. I'd never heard of it but it gets decent reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and apparently a sequel is being made.

Of course, you still may be shaking your head as to what any of this has to do with The Intercept's story about Police Chief Keith Humphrey. But it's right there in the takedown demand:

The other URLs listed do seem to lead to sketchy download sites, meaning they likely are pirated versions of the film. But, why is The Intercept article targeted? It seems the most obvious explanation -- as stupid as it sounds -- is that the subhead to The Intercept story mentions... "the old guard" as those trying to takedown Chief Humphrey.

If you can't see that, it shows the title and sub from The Intercept:

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE ROCK
A Reformist Black Police Chief Faces an Uprising of the Old Guard


So... the most likely explanation here, as stupid as it seems, is that Netflix has some sort of deal with this silly Russian company, which hired the Singaporean "cybersecurity" firm Group IB to try to "police" the internet of infringing works in Russia... and in their lazy Googling for infringing copies of these Netflix shows and movies, they searched for "the old guard" and just grabbed various URLs, and didn't check all of them, meaning that The Intercept's story about Chief Humphrey got caught up in the mess... and, especially over the holidays with probably a lot of Google's copyright takedown checkers on vacation, nobody caught that this was obviously a mistake until The Intercept (understandably) raised a stink.

For most normal people this would be yet another sign of how broken our copyright system has become, but unfortunately it's the way things work these days.

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Filed Under: censorship, copyright, dmca, journalism, little rock, radley balko, reporting, russia, takedowns, the old guard
Companies: google, group-ib, netflix, the intercept


Reader Comments

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  1. icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 9:44am

    Dumb and Dumberer

    I thought the takedown request was for "Big Trouble in Little Rock" which sounds close to "Big Trouble in Little China", but something as generic as "The Old Guard"? Seriously?

    Seriously?

    SERIOUSLY?!?!?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2022 @ 10:00am

    "didn't check all of them"

    implying that they checked any of them is hilariously optimistic

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Hero, 4 Jan 2022 @ 10:07am

    It claims to be an "industry-leading cybersecurity solutions provider"

    And I bet it takes its customer's privacy very seriously.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    radix4801 (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 10:33am

    Re: Dumb and Dumberer

    Are you trying to get this post Taken down? You can't use that many titles in one post, it'll be Armageddon!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    MindParadox (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 10:36am

    The movie referneced above :P

    It's pretty decent :) the plot isn't fantastic, but its at least a semi original twist :P

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 10:41am

    The Old Guard was a comic before it was a movie.
    Rather interesting premise... immortals from various ages doing things to try and keep the world on the right path... it me, before I figured out humans aren't worth saving.

    Once again I point out making those who send bogus takedowns having to pay even a quarter for each erroneous url, would result in an improvement in the quality of notices. It doesn't sound like a lot but when you look at some of the spray and pray notice senders who generate urls based on a formula of where things MIGHT appear it would add up quickly.

    Aww poor Craig, nothing ever goes his way.
    He forgot to DMCA his nudes where he wasn't looking for girls he was looking for employment.
    He never did answer me if he still had the folex he was wearing in the pictures. Is it bad when a gay guy looks at your dick pics and is more interested in your watch? I think so.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    PaulT (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 11:38am

    Re:

    "The Old Guard was a comic before it was a movie."

    It's also a common idiom that has been used for the titles of 2 movies in 1913 and one in 1960 (via quick Letterboxd search, there may be more, especially under the Russian title), and I'm sure for many other media and writing. So, yet another great example of the problems here - not only are they trying to rob the English language of things they borrowed from in the first place, but also generations of things that are/should be in the public domain.

    As you correctly state, the central issue is that the DMCA doesn't penalise abusers for issues takedown notices that are hilariously false at even a cursory glance, and that the collateral damage that some people pretend doesn't matter is very much there.

    Sorry, corporate fellatio enthusiasts, but some of us still think that language and history are more important than the product current being sold.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    PaulT (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 11:41am

    Re: Dumb and Dumberer

    While held up as a classic today and almost certainly having made a lot more money in the intervening decades, John Carpenter's movie was a flop on first release and as such doesn't have the worship that a modern new release will have from those in the copyright cult.

    Which in some ways is almost a shame, since the games we could play in noting the huge number of Chinese movies that were referenced (or "borrowed" in that film would make a hilarious game to play to distract from the usual game of "Disney based its empire on the public domain").

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2022 @ 12:48pm

    Re: Dumb and Dumberer

    We don't necessarily speak Language X, and didn't follow up on anything more after seeing a search result.

    Weirdly, this one didn't hit millions of pages, but probably should have done.

    3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) - Official Homepage
    Old guard Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster
    etc., etc., not to mention all the sites that mention the movie or antecedent materials.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 1:00pm

    We’ve had commenters here who’ve wondered why the law lacks “a DMCA but for everyday speech” as some form of content moderation or whatnot. To those commenters: This article proves exactly why we don’t have (or need) such a thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2022 @ 1:01pm

    You can't even use "words" these days.

    ... because copyrightable media uses ... words... for titles.

    Bachelorette Abduction in New York, greedy gremlins unjustly accused.

    See how easy it is to create sentences that are composed entirely of movie/series titles?

    Delisting request in 3... 2... 1...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2022 @ 1:18pm

    Re:

    They likely checked one, to make sure the bot was performing the correct search(es). Netflix won't care if they over-block, but if they're spending Netflix's money blocking "John Wick" instead... they aren't willing to waste money on enforcing other people's copyright.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Wyrm (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 1:28pm

    Remarkably enough, they do.
    Google has tons of flaws, but they indeed reject a ton of invalid take-down requests.

    Problem is like any of these issues (copyright, trademark, moderation), it's a problem of scale. No matter how much you try, you will fail a lot in a spectacular fashion because we talk about billions of requests to validate. And that's because the incentives are all geared towards taking down when in doubt. No actual due process is required or even encouraged. So, in a hurry, some obviously wrong requests are going to go through anyway.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 1:36pm

    Re: Re:

    PaulT, I was just telling Mike that there was a comic of this source material before Netflix made their movie.

    Not defending a single other thing.

    A web page with just the words in the same order shoudl have cost them a quarter (or a couple).
    The problem is the law encourages the spray and pray methods by penalizing anyone who attempts to use logic.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Bobvious, 4 Jan 2022 @ 2:01pm

    Re: You can't even use "words" these days.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 2:03pm

    'It would cost US to be wrong? Let's check those claims again..'

    Ah the problems that would be avoided if the law was even remotely balanced and had a penalty for issuing bogus claims...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Michael, 4 Jan 2022 @ 2:25pm

    Re: The movie referneced above :P

    The movie would have been better as a 15-minute introduction to a better film in which something actually happens.

    As it is The Old Guard is just an introduction of the idea and characters, followed by ... well ... not much.

    It's a good idea, and well-made. But aimless. (And sadly it has the least charismatic villian in the history of cinema.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    BernardoVerda (profile), 4 Jan 2022 @ 4:33pm

    Re: 'It would cost US to be wrong? Let's check those claims agai

    But there is no such penalty -- and the big players have even quite openly bragged about that being the case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2022 @ 6:08pm

    DMCA

    The only way to fix this shit is to send massive DMCA takedown request to Google specifying congressmen web pages as infringing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2022 @ 8:36pm

    Re:

    Google has tons of flaws, but they indeed reject a ton of invalid take-down requests.

    Sometimes I wonder if that isn't simply kicking the can down the road.

    The fact that invalid take-down requests get rejected masks the fact that doing so consistently, at scale, is a difficult task even for the likes of Google. It gives copyright maximalists the excuse that Google can do it so everyone else should be able to, and the insistence that because Google's system works, invalid or incorrect takedown requests shouldn't be a problem. (Completely, of course, sidestepping the issue that the sheer number of requests is a sign that people are constantly trying to game the system.) That's not even going over the fact that Google gets regularly blamed for "contributory" copyright infringement in the same horseshit way that free Wi-Fi or ISPs do.

    Meanwhile, despite the assurances from copyright holders who swear that they will never, ever abuse the privileges they've been given to exact monetary pounds of flesh from the populace, we still get dumb shit like this. If Google had simply taken down HBO.com just as HBO themselves requested, there'd be actual penalties for misusing takedowns. Rightsholders ought to be taken down a few notches the same way they insist that average users should be for providing public Wi-Fi.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    John Thacker, 4 Jan 2022 @ 8:42pm

    "For most normal people this would be yet another sign of how broken our copyright system has become, but unfortunately it's the way things work these days. "

    Yes, there's a massive penalty for not removing something, but never a real penalty for acting "out of an abundance of caution," here with the takedown. It's the same sort of logic that happens in a lot of other areas-- the FDA gets in trouble if they approve a drug (or rapid test) that shouldn't get approved, but they don't get in trouble for making drug or test (or sunscreen) approvals take longer. So just like the DMCA, their results are biased.

    It's how things work these days, but it's also how things have worked for decades, and it's not because of corporate interests or anything like that. It's because, unfortunately, it's what we the people want on average, because "better safe than sorry" sounds good to people.

    People make fun of trolley problems, but life is full of real trolley problems.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    PaulT (profile), 5 Jan 2022 @ 7:03am

    Re: Re: Re:

    I'm fairly sure most people knew that, and that there would be an obvious reason why it wasn't included in the takedowns. My point is that there's a lot of things that stand to be taken down without recourse who have more of a claim to the phrase than the people claiming it in this case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    Jef Pearlman (profile), 5 Jan 2022 @ 9:36am

    Titles Are Not Copyrightable

    Quick reminder on one of the subplots here: titles are not copyrightable, period. "Examples of names, titles, or short phrases that do not contain a sufficient amount of creativity to support a claim in copyright include ... The title or subtitle of a work, such as a book, a song, or a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work." https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ33.pdf

    Just one extra reason the takedown notice is faulty and they need to actually look at the allegedly infringing work. (Even if the title is "The Old Guard Full Movie Download," that might be referring to my new CC-licensed documentary of the same name.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    Vikarti Anatra (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 10:43am

    Situation is slightly different.

    ооо развлекательный онлайн-сервис is netflix partner (basically THEY operate Netflix in Russia, if you pay for netflix.com from Russia - you will get receipts from ооо развлекательный онлайн-сервис, etc)

    Reason for this deal - Russia's legislation about movie streaming services,
    check https://www.interfax.ru/russia/813036 (in Russian).

    It's likely they also responsible for anti-pirate efforts.
    Also, Group-IB's status as Singapure company is same as Yandex being Netherlands company. For all practical reasons, both are Russian companies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2022 @ 9:08am

    I claim copyright on the first three letters of the alphabet because they're my initials and subject to one or more registered trademarks.

    You will ese nd desist from ll further use of these three letters without written prior onsent from me or my legl ounsel.

    Should the infringing ondut ontinue, I my hve no other hoie ut to pursue further tion ginst you.

    See you in ourt, humps!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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