Islamic Extremists Use YouTube's Automated Copyright Dispute Process To Access Critics' Personal Data
from the the-further-breaking-of-a-very-broken-system dept
YouTube's infringement reporting system is -- like many others around the web -- fundamentally broken. Making bogus copyright claims is still an easy way to get channels shut down or to siphon ad revenue from existing videos. It can also be used as a censor -- a cheap and dirty way to shut up critics or remove compromising video.
Apparently, Islamic extremists linked with Al-Qaeda have found another use for YouTube's mostly automated dispute process: low-effort doxxing. According to German news sites, a YouTube channel (Al Hayat TV) known for its criticism of Islam has had to send its listed contact person into hiding after bogus copyright claims filed by extremists led to the exposure of his personal information.
On September 25th, someone using the name "First Crist, Copyright" filed bogus copyright complaints against Al Hayat TV. In order to prevent the channel from being shut down for multiple "strikes," Al Hayat TV was forced to file a counter notification. But in order to do so, the channel operators had to expose sensitive information.
From the YouTube Help section on counter notifications:
After we receive your counter notification, we will forward it to the party who submitted the original claim of copyright infringement. Please note that when we forward the notice, it will include your personal information. By submitting a counter notification, you consent to having your information revealed in this way.Some of the people behind the channel contacted YouTube and tried to explain the danger of releasing this personal information, especially considering a majority of its contributors operated anonymously for safety reasons. These pleas went unheeded, thanks to the automation of the copyright dispute process. Each request was greeted with pre-generated responses from YouTube support. Discussions with actual humans at YouTube only confirmed that the channel wouldn't be reinstated without following the counter notice procedure -- including handing over details on the channel's contact person.
Unfortunately unaware of the fact that it could have used a legal representative to handle this, Al Hayat TV filed formal counter notices using one of its member's names. Shortly thereafter, it received threats from the supposed copyright holder warning the contact person to "watch your head" (a phrase basically understood to be a death threat in Arabic) and promising to spread this info across several extremist websites. The message also told the contact person to [paraphrased slightly] enjoy living in fear under police protection. The contact person has since gone into hiding.
The quid pro quo of the copyright dispute process netted Al Hayat TV death threats and a completely bogus "First Crist, Copyright" contact person: Samuel George of 245 George Street in Sydney, Australia. Google Street View shows this address to be right in the middle of some prime downtown shopping.
At this point, it would be beyond tedious to rehash the problems with these automated enforcement systems. But this story shows the system can be easily exploited to satisfy very twisted ends. YouTube's copyright dispute process is automated out of necessity. The fact that it instantly "sides" with the accuser contributes to the problem. Trying to sort out the legitimacy of copyright claims without chewing up thousands of man-hours would be a logistical nightmare and would quite possibly result in a system inferior to the irreversibly-broken one in place today. The unfortunate lesson to be drawn from this debacle is that those on the "inside" need to game the system as effectively as those on the "outside." If YouTube's going to treat copyright claims issued by "Crist" from the middle of the Establishment Bar in Sydney, Australia as wholly legitimate, Al Hayat TV should be shown the same disinterested "courtesy" and be allowed to issue a counter notices signed by an imaginary attorney residing at some random address. After all, if the dispute continues past this point, YouTube simply washes its hands of the entire situation and tells both parties to work it out themselves.
Copyright isn't really the culprit here. It's the systems that have been developed in response to rights holders' complaints. They're too easily gamed and little to nothing in the way of deterrents. Unfortunately, unlike incidents where copyright enforcement has been clumsily deployed as a censor, there's no Streisand Effect equivalent for those who greet speech they don't like with threats and violence. Extremists like this simply don't care what others think of their irrational hatred and colossally stupid worldview.