Wednesday, 22 October 2003
Diebold detractors defy DMCA desist demands
As I explained in a previous article (E-lection security in Georgia), the voting machine products and related services sold by Diebold Election Systems raise serious election-integrity concerns. After a hacker broke into Diebold's computer network and downloaded ("stole," in Diebold's words) several internal memoranda, he distributed those documents widely, including some copies to journalists and activists. The compromising documents confirm that the company has known of its voting machines' shortcomings for some time. Embarassed, Diebold played the great American trump card, the lawsuit.
Diebold has sent an unknown number of "cease and desist" letters to people who posted the documents on their web sites. The letters threaten that the company will sue under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) if the recipient does not promptly remove the offending memos from his web site. Diebold (correctly) insists that it owns a copyright in those documents and that they are being publicly displayed without permission. It then invokes the provision of the law which requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to remove material that infringes a copyright promptly upon being notified of its presence on its servers. Any webmaster who does not take down the memos, Diebold threatens, will soon stare down the barrel of a copyright infringement lawsuit.
How is this wrong? Let me count the ways.
Copyright law, including the DMCA, is intended to give authors and artists a chance to earn rewards for their creative work. It grants them the exclusive rights to copy, distribute, perform, and publicly display their literature and art. In the U.S., the rationale behind copyright goes like this: if an author has the legal right to prevent others from doing these things, he will hold a limited monopoly on his own work and will be able to derive income from it. In Europe (and especially in France), the rationale is different: authors and artists are naturally and morally attached to their work, and this attachment endows them with the right to control the distribution and use of their work. Diebold, on the other hand, has never had the intention of profiting from the writings at issue. In fact, these writings harm Diebold's profit interests because they expose flaws in its revenue-generating products. The company's desire to suppress public discussion of these documents is understandable, but its method of suppressing them bends copyright law past the breaking point.
Copyright law has always granted only a limited monopoly to authors. The public enjoys the right to make "fair use" of copyrighted works — especially for purposes such as criticism, satire, parody, scholarly analysis, and other uses that are necessary to preserve unfettered public debate and preserve the liberty of free expression. These limitations on the copyright monopoly are deeply affected with First Amendment interests, and they are the Copyright Act's last line of defense against constitutional challenges. See, e.g., Eldred v. Ashcroft, 123 S.Ct. 769, 154 L.Ed.2d 683 (2003).
It is axiomatic in First Amendment jurisprudence that "political speech," broadly defined, is at the core of what the Amendment protects. Few, if any, topics are more fundamentally political than the process by which citizens in a democracy elect their government's officials. As states and counties update their voting machinery in the wake of the 2000 Presidential election debacle and the California recall lawsuit, most of them are adopting (or at least considering) "touch screen" machines like Diebold's. In perhaps ten to 15 years, all American elections will be conducted on such machines. Diebold, by choosing to manufacture and sell voting machines, has thrust itself into the the election process and made itself a focal point of public debate. Unfortunately, the company has asserted its copyrights for the sole purpose of stifling the public discussion that is so vital if our communities are going to adopt the best election machinery and conduct the fairest possible elections.
Civil libertarian organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are fighting to protect the public's right to access, read and discuss documents that directly affect the right to vote. Without public discussion, our communities might buy inferior equipment, and future elections would be tained with, at best, inefficiency and, at worst, fraud and corruption. Two brave groups of students at Swarthmore College are engaged in an "electronic civil disobedience" campaign to thwart Diebold's machinations. The groups, Why War? and the Swarthmore Coalition for the Digital Commons (whose web site Diebold has, at least temporarily, succeeded in shutting down), have organized a network of students and others who are willing to host the Diebold documents for at least a short time. Why War? maintains a web page with links to the "current" location of the documents, and the location changes as soon as Diebold sends another cease and desist letter. Efforts like this give life to John Gilmore's prescient statement, "The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it."
We should support efforts like Why War?'s not only because they bolster the long-term integrity of the American electoral system (their narrowest goal) but because they also enable the free exchange of ideas (their broadest goal). The First Amendment embodies some of the most fundamental rights and liberties that our society recognizes. Pinching them through copyright law can only hurt our society.