Websites Complain About Fake Takedown Notices Being Used On Facebook

Questions are being raised about how Facebook handles copyright and trademark complaints, after bogus complaints were used to remove the Facebook pages of at least three tech news websites over the past several days. Yesterday, Facebook removed a page belonging to Ars Technica–and Ars proceeded to publish an article about what happened, updating it its experience with the takedown throughout the day. That has caused more complaints to come out, alleging that Facebook is taking down pages based on baseless intellectual property complaints.

After receiving an email notifying it that its page was taken down because of alleged copyright infringement, Ars Technica editor Ken Fisher wrote a post complaining that the notice they were sent was “rather useless.” The note didn’t have any details about the supposed infringement, and didn’t even have an e-mail to contact about the issue. When they did find an email on a help page, Facebook didn’t immediately respond; it was only through the news site’s PR contacts that they got any help from the website. Writes Fisher: “Prior to the account lockout, we had received no notices of infringement or warnings. Truly, we awoke to find that Facebook had summoned a judge, jury, and executioner and carried out its swift brand of McJustice all without bothering to let us know that there was even a problem.”

Late yesterday, Facebook responded, saying: “We have investigated a number of recent intellectual property cases and have restored four pages as a result. We apologize for any inconvenience. Abuse of DMCA and other intellectual property notice procedures is a challenge for every major Internet service and we take it seriously.” The social networking site added that “no system is perfect and we are always striving to improve our practices,” and that it will look into refining its systems and procedures.

All internet companies are in something of a jam when it comes to dealing with intellectual property complaints (which, in this scenario, are basically copyright and trademark complaints.) They’re compelled by law to respond, or risk losing their “safe harbor” from lawsuits. And the main U.S. law that protects online services from being held liable based on user activity–Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act–doesn’t apply to intellectual property complaints.

However, Ars Technica clearly hit a vein when it began publicly complaining about the opacity of Facebook’s takedown process. Other people started coming forward with their own complaints:

»  Redmond Pie, a blog covering Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) and its competitors, has complained about its Facebook page being taken down this week as well.

»  Another tech news blog, Neowin, had its Facebook page summarily deleted when someone complained it violated copyright. Facebook provided the complainant’s email address and at first said that the only way to get the page restored would be for Neowin to get the complaining party to withdraw the complaint. However, Neowin didn’t get any response when it reached out. Pressed for more info, Facebook responded that a robot toy store owned the trademark “Neowin.” But Neowin the blog couldn’t find such a store online and the U.S. Patent and Trademark office contained no record of such a trademark. Yesterday, Facebook restored Neowin’s page.

»  Danah Boyd, a prominent social media researcher, had her Tumblr site removed after a company claiming trademark rights to the word “Zephoria” complained. Boyd wrote a blog post complaining that “Tumblr disappeared me!” noting that she’d been using that word longer than the complaining company called Zephoria, and in any case she wasn’t confusing anyone, which is supposed to be the standard for a trademark complaint. After blogging about the issue, she ultimately heard from the president of Tumblr, who apologized and restored her site.

All these situations have had “happy” endings but they do highlight the fact that trademark and copyright complaint systems are increasingly being abused. It isn’t just Facebook–the general counsels at Yelp and Twitter have both talked about how they get spurious and questionable intellectual property takedown notices all the time. But services that don’t check those abuses are putting themselves in danger of some PR blowback. (See Techdirt post on “The Danger of Relying On Third Party Services With No Backbone.”)