A Spanish company with ties to the Ecuadorian government is abusing copyright infringement claims to censor communications by oil company Chevron that allege corruption by the administration of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, the company claimed on Thursday.
Anti-piracy company Ares Rights has falsely flagged a number of Chevron’s YouTube videos for copyright infringement in an effort to get YouTube to remove the videos, Chevron said in a blog post.
YouTube removed many of the videos per company policy despite the Ares Rights’ history of frivolous copyright complaints.
Chevron has been highly critical of the Correa administration, which the company has accused of collaborating with environmentalist groups and plaintiffs attorneys seeking to enforce an $18 billion judgment from an Ecuadorian court against Chevron.
The company, which has battled the lawsuit since it acquired Texaco in 2002, claims that the judgment is tainted by fraud, some of which was abetted by the Ecuadorian government. Because Chevron has no assets in Ecuador, the plaintiffs have attempted to enforce the judgment in other countries, including Canada and Argentina.
Chevron has called Correa "something just north of a corrupt political thug." Lead plaintiff attorney Steven Donziger said during the trial that Correa and the plaintiffs had "been really helping each other."
Correa, one Chevron spokesperson said, "has openly traveled around in a silly attempt to get countries like Argentina to freeze their Chevron assets and cough up billions that would then be collected by Ecuador and to the tune of 90 percent of the damage award."
Chevron has built a large communications and public relations team to push back against attacks from plaintiffs in Ecuador. That effort included a number of YouTube videos describing what it says is fraud and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system.
Those videos were among those recently removed from YouTube after Ares Rights filed complaints under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Chevron called the effort "a calculated strategy of filing meritless copyright infringement notices to quash free speech."
Ares Rights has deep ties to the Ecuadorian government and has previously worked to remove online content critical of Correa and his administration, even going so far as to demand the removal of single tweets.
The company previously worked to scrub the Internet of copies of Ecuadorian intelligence documents published by BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray. It filed a handful of DMCA complaints with Google, Dropbox, and Scribd to remove the documents.
One complaint said the request was made on behalf of Fernando Alvarado, Ecuador’s communications secretary.
Other complaints in the months since have targeted an image of Ecuador’s vice president on a fake "wanted" poster and a blog post critical of the government’s espionage practices.
Legal blogger Adam Steinbaugh documented a host of other instances of Ares Rights DMCA abuse. He wrote that the firm is "being used by Ecuador’s government to censor dissidents by way of meritless copyright claims."
Ares Rights did not respond to a request for comment.
"A government abusing the law—whether its own law or that of another country—to intimidate critics of any sort is a danger to critics of every sort," Steinbaugh said of the Chevron incident.
YouTube defended its DMCA policy when asked for comment.
"When we receive a complaint alleging that a video infringes another's copyright, we remove that video in accordance with the law," a YouTube spokesperson said. "Users who believe that a video was removed in error can appeal the copyright takedown, and if a user prevails in that process, we reinstate the video."
Legal experts say the policy is a product of current copyright law, which encourage companies to "shoot first, ask questions later," in the words of James Skyles, principal attorney at Skyles Law Group.
Under the DMCA "content hosts such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram are protected from liability from what other users post under the so-called ‘safe-guard’ provision of the act," Skyles said.
That provision requires such companies to remove content within 24 hours of receiving a complaint, regardless of its apparent merits.
The resulting copyright regime is "ripe for abuse," Skyles said, "and while the DMCA gives remedies for those abused by complaints, the process is long and drawn out and can become extremely complicated, especially when dealing with foreign parties."