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: ÐžÐžÐž “Ð ÐÐ—Ð’Ð›Ð•ÐšÐÐ¢Ð•Ð›Ð¬ÐÐ«Ð™ ÐžÐÐ›ÐÐ™Ð-Ð¡Ð•Ð Ð’Ð˜Ð¡.” 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 / ÐžÑ‡ÐµÐ½ÑŒ ÑÑ‚Ñ€Ð°Ð½Ð½Ñ‹Ðµ Ð´ÐµÐ»Ð°” (2016)
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:
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.