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The invisible campaign to censor the internet

There’s an enormous and largely invisible campaign to use fraudulent notices under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act to remove critical articles from the internet. We don’t know who is running the campaign, but we do know it’s facilitated by Google’s amazingly trustworthy approach to DMCA complaints made by companies that don’t exist.

I wrote recently about a fraudulent attempt to use US copyright law to take down an article I’d written which was critical of a fake PR firm, “Mogul Press“.1Mogul Press’s website T&Cs purport to forbid most third party websites from linking to it, and say “You approve to immediately remove all links to our Website upon request”. Oddly there are a few other websites that contain the same unusual formulation. I was shocked to see how they did this – they copied my text into a fake website,2Everything on this website is licensed under a Creative Commons licence; it can be freely copied, but must be attributed. The fake website doesn’t contain any attribution, and is therefore breaching my copyright. I have therefore submitted a DMCA takedown notice. then filed a takedown notice at Google claiming my article had copied theirs:

The notice was sent by “LMG Media Group” in the UAE. I don’t believe it exists – but Google rather brilliantly accepts takedown notices without checking if the person filing it exists.

Another identical notice was sent by “Lamar Media Corporation” in the US, which also doesn’t appear to exist:

The intended effect is to remove my article from Google searches.3I filed a counter-notice, which restored my article. In this case that was straightforward; in other cases the sheer volume of automated DMCA takedown notices makes it hard for the victim to respond, particularly if they’re not a large media corporation.

Note the unusual wording of the two notices: “completely infringing” (which reads like someone without legal training trying to sound like a lawyer).

I wondered if there had been any other similar takedowns, and so searched for other occurrences of that unusual phrase. This search of the Lumen database finds 180 just from “Media Corporation” entities.4You need an account with Lumen to explore these requests in detail. Accounts aren’t generally available, given it’s a non-profit operating a massive database potentially open to abuse, but they do provide access to non-profits and researchers, and kindly provided us with login credentials. Each one has identical text, and is sent by a fake company whose name appears to have been randomly generated. Forbidden Stories and rest of world published investigations into Eliminalia, a Spanish company that monetised this practice at scale, using the exact same technique of creating backdated copies and then fraudulently claiming the copy is the original.5As an aside, I don’t understand why Eliminalia hasn’t been prosecuted by the Spanish authorities; its business model appears to rely upon fraud. And Mashable reported on another fraudulent takedown attempt in 2022.

I don’t know if what I’m seeing is Eliminalia, or someone else with a similar business model who was hired by Mogul Press.6I asked Mogul Press for comment and they didn’t reply, despite having been very chatty previously. I’m therefore seems reasonably likely that the takedown attempt was commissioned by them.

There’s this, trying to take down a report of a solicitor failing to appeal a striking-off:

And this, trying to take down another report of that same event:

With a duplicate from another made-up company (“Ventuky Media Corporation”), and another from “Bryan Media Corporation”, and another from “Yan Media Corporation”, and another from “Richards Media Corporation”, and another from “Venkata Media Corporation”. There are many more.

The fraudulent companies set up automated systems that can file zillions of complaints instantly. The victim, however, is unlikely to have any automated way to file counter-notices… they’ll have to do so individually. It’s also widely believed that the more reports Google receives, the greater the chance it downgrades the target website in its ranking.

And others have been at this. If you google the name of the solicitor and “striking off” you’ll see some search results, then this:

That takes us to this, a differently worded but also fraudulent notice trying to hide another article about the solicitor:

It claims to be sent by BR Law & Co in Abu Dhabi. BR Law does exist, and has an office in Abu Dhabi, but doesn’t style itself BR Law & Co. I asked BR Law for comment and didn’t hear back.

The former solicitor concerned, his old law firm and his current law firm all deny any involvement in these takedowns. I believe them; even if we ignore the ethics and legality, why take action in January 2024 to remove news from six months earlier? So the identity of those responsible remains a mystery.

Similar searches reveal more attempts to takedown inconvenient reports.

There’s this, from the non-existent Maison Media Corporation trying to take down this article about an allegation of sexual misconduct:7The Messenger has now shut down, for unrelated reasons.

And there’s also an identical notice sent by the non-existent Annoda Media Corporation.

This from the non-existent Sebastian Media Corporation trying to take down this article about another accusation of sexual misconduct:

And this – it’s unclear why Alison Media Corporation (which again doesn’t exist) is trying to take down a Harris County court report (link now dead), but they are:

But clearly someone is trying to hide something in Harris County, because here the non-existent Smith Media Corporation is trying to take down another page of court reports:

The legal theme continues – here the non-existent Ranthom Media Corporation is trying to take down a Utah case report:

Here, the non-existent Lesley Media Corporation is trying to take down a page with reviews of a financial professional:

And so it goes on. Multiple attempts to take down accusations of sexual misconduct by a founder of a New Hampshire network of addiction clinics. Lots of attempts to takedown investigative reporting by journalist Matei Rosca. A number of attempts to takedown a report alleging a student is an antisemite.

There also appear to be many attempts to take down gambling websites – perhaps by owners of rival websites?

Filing a bad faith takedown notice is a breach of the DMCA; in principle those affected could sue for damages (probably very small) plus attorney fees (potentially large). More seriously, attempting to gain a financial benefit through a fraudulent filing may amount to a criminal offence in the US (wire fraud) and the UK (false representation fraud and/or a breach of the Computer Misuse Act). In both cases, criminal liability could extend to the individual paying for the takedown service, if they were aware that the takedown would be fraudulent (and how could it not be?).

The problem here is that Google assists the frauds, by being amazingly trusting and not requiring any proof of the identity of people submitting takedown notices. I recently “took ownership” of the “knowledge panel” Google displays if someone googles my name. This required an image of my passport and a selfie. It is very unfortunate that Google has much less stringent procedures to file a DMCA takedown notice. Others are more careful.

A Google spokesperson provided this statement:

“We have robust tools and processes in place to fight fraudulent takedown attempts, and we use a combination of automated and human review to detect signals of abuse – including tactics that are well-known to us like backdating. We provide extensive transparency and submit notices to Lumen about removal requests to hold requesters accountable. Sites can file counter notifications for us to re-review if they believe content has been removed from our results in error. We track networks of abuse and apply extra scrutiny to removal requests where appropriate, and we’ve taken legal action to fight bad actors abusing the DMCA.” 

Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be working. Google is accepting takedown notices which have obvious signs of fraud (e.g. multiple companies claiming copyright over the same article, which is highly unlikely). Google could tighten up its existing processes. An additional step would be for Google to require ID verification for people submitting DMCA claims. It’s not at all clear to me why they can’t do that.


Many thanks to Lumen for providing access to their database.

Photo by DALL-E 3 – “a photo of an evil hacker in silhouette at a computer terminal, photorealistic”

  • 1
    Mogul Press’s website T&Cs purport to forbid most third party websites from linking to it, and say “You approve to immediately remove all links to our Website upon request”. Oddly there are a few other websites that contain the same unusual formulation.
  • 2
    Everything on this website is licensed under a Creative Commons licence; it can be freely copied, but must be attributed. The fake website doesn’t contain any attribution, and is therefore breaching my copyright. I have therefore submitted a DMCA takedown notice.
  • 3
    I filed a counter-notice, which restored my article. In this case that was straightforward; in other cases the sheer volume of automated DMCA takedown notices makes it hard for the victim to respond, particularly if they’re not a large media corporation.
  • 4
    You need an account with Lumen to explore these requests in detail. Accounts aren’t generally available, given it’s a non-profit operating a massive database potentially open to abuse, but they do provide access to non-profits and researchers, and kindly provided us with login credentials.
  • 5
    As an aside, I don’t understand why Eliminalia hasn’t been prosecuted by the Spanish authorities; its business model appears to rely upon fraud.
  • 6
    I asked Mogul Press for comment and they didn’t reply, despite having been very chatty previously. I’m therefore seems reasonably likely that the takedown attempt was commissioned by them.
  • 7
    The Messenger has now shut down, for unrelated reasons.

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One response to “The invisible campaign to censor the internet”

  1. I have received a number of false DMCA takedown requests re my website, but in all cases they are deemed false so far. I have a small blog targeting some dodgy businesses and ‘wealth gurus’. People from non-existent businesses in India copy my posts, then report a DMCA breach. I suspect this is the result of the work of some businesses that do “online reputation management”. It’s possible that people engaging those firms don’t know (or care) what techniques they use to remove negative info. 15 years ago working at a consumer organisation the techniques of these “reputation management” firms was a bit simpler – they’d contact everyone who had made a negative comment about a company and threaten legal action.

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