Citigroup's failed attempt to bludgeon blogger with copyright law

dmca logoYesterday, Citigroup tried to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

They went after blogger Doug Henwood who had posted a 2009 Citigroup research report dealing with the (then) upcoming Government run stress tests being administered to the major banks.

The stress tests, you'll recall,  were meant to assess the strength of the banks' balance sheets and to justify, in the views of many, the enormous bailouts the banks were receiving at the time. The document is  apparently embarrassing to Citigroup since it confirms what many understood to be an extremely softball approach by the government regulators towards the banks.

Citigroup lawyers, wanting to pressure Henwood to remove the document from his blog, sent what is called a DMCA takedown notice (referring to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to WordPress where Henwood hosts his blog. WordPress acted immediately to block Henwood’s access to his own blog until he agreed to take down the document: Henwood explained:

I couldn’t post anything to this blog. Once I said "Yes, Sir," my posting privileges were restored. The document was, of course, deleted.

Of course that is only the beginning of the story as far as the document and it's exposure on the internet. Later the same day, the story was picked up by well known economist, blogger and U.C. Berkeley professor Brad DeLong who wrote a post entitled Citigroup's View of the Obama Administration in February 2009... where he not only quotes from large sections of the report itself but he also provides a link for readers to download the actual document from his own site. Now the story was out and naturally, the news of the Citigroup attempt to quash the document spread and an article appeared on popular website Salon.com where Andrew Leonard posted this - Citigroup's doomed attempt to erase the past, in which he discusses the contents of the document and Citigroups attempts to make it go away.

So what was the legal basis for Citigroup's action? The Digital Millenium Copyright Act was passed in 1998 and meant to provide legal ammunition against various forms of digital piracy. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation

in practice, the DMCA [has] done nothing to stop "Internet piracy." Yet the DMCA has become a serious threat that jeopardizes fair use, impedes competition and innovation, chills free expression and scientific research, and interferes with computer intrusion laws.”

Understanding the original intent of the DMCA at least as it was stated at the time it was passed makes DeLong's comment about inappropriateness of the use of this law in this case all the more understandable:

Today--nineteen months after this document was written--it is of historical interest only: none of Citigroup's paying clients would pay a cent for the information contained in it, for nobody could in any way profitably trade today on Citigroup's February 2009 analysis of the policies of the Geithner Treasury.
Whatever you think about the DMCA, it should not be used to prune the historical record of primary sources about how various economic policies were perceived at the time.

And whatever you think of the legal merits of the DMCA as it relates to this situation it clearly is the wrong tool. It's simply ineffectual- and worse, counterproductive. We see that a major corporation, Citigroup, finding itself at a loss as to how to deal with the inevitable escape of information onto the internet still looks for old time remedies that simply don’t work. And not only do they not achieve the intended goal but they actually make the situation even worse - at least from Citigroup's point of view. Citigroup's hamfisted attempt to remove this unwanted document from the internet only added fuel to the fire. How many people who had never heard of Henwood and knew nothing about this document are now curiously reading blogposts about it, downloading the report itself and passing it on to others?

 

Mainsail through time