7 of 10 NL providers remove public domain text

By EDRi · October 6, 2004

7 out of 10 internet providers in the Netherlands remove a text by the famous Dutch author Multatuli (who died in 1887), without even looking at the webpage, or verifying the identity of the plaintiff. These are the results of an experiment conducted this summer by the Dutch EDRI-member Bits of Freedom about complaint procedures at ISPs.

Bits of Freedom picked 10 internet providers for the test, 3 free and 3 paid (dial-up) access providers, 3 hosting providers dedicated to business customers and 1 cable internet provider. A text was uploaded from Multatuli (pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker), dating from 1871. The text is about democracy, and begins with the story of the sheep. The sheep chase away a tyrant, only to find themselves in need of specialists to represent them, and they end up inviting the tyrant back, disguised as ‘Specialist’. The text clearly states in the opening line that the work dates from 1871, and was reprinted in 1981. At the bottom of the text there is a line stating ‘this works belongs to the public domain’. Since copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author, all works by Multatuli are in the public domain since 1957.

First the customer was invented, and given the name ‘Johan de Ruyter’.

Secondly, a non-existent society was created to act as copyright holder, the E.D. Dekkers society. Representing this society was a ‘legal advisor’, Mr. Johan Droogleever. A few weeks after the text were brought online, Mr.

Droogleever started to send complaints to the providers from his Hotmail account, stating the society owned all the copyrights to any published materials of E.D. Dekkers, and now that the provider was notified, he expected the provider to act expeditiously and remove the text.

5 out of the 10 providers removed the text after the first or second e-mail from Mr. Droogleever, one business provider even within 3 hours after receiving the first e-mail. 3 providers replied with a paper questionnaire, in which the plaintiff was invited to specify the exact nature of the complaint. Droogleever just restated the same argument and in 2 cases the providers removed the webpage without ever looking at the webpage or verifying if the E.D. Dekkers society existed at all.

Only 1 provider sent a brief e-mail back to Droogleever explaining he as a legal advisor should also know copyrights had long ago expired. In another case, the provider responded that a Hotmail address was not credible at all, and the complaint would only be processed if Droogleever could provide several written proofs of the existence of the society and his ability to act on their behalf. Finally, the third provider that did not remove the text did not respond at all to any of the 4 e-mails Droogleever sent.

Under the European E-Commerce directive internet hosting providers risk liability for apparently illegal content from their customers. Once they are notified, and the unlawfulness is ‘apparent’, they should take immediate action to block or remove the content. According to Bits of Freedom, this experiment clearly demonstrates the need for a precise notice and takedown procedure and legal guarantees for freedom of speech legal. Currently, there is too much one-sided liability pressure on ISPs to immediately remove, without proper investigation.

Research paper Bits of Freedom (01.10.2004)