The key provision in a 1998 law that led to the most recent (and possibly worst) celebrity photo leak scandal in history
McKayla Maroney smiles after competing on the floor exercise during the U.S. women's national gymnastics championships in Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
McKayla Maroney rubs her ankle prior to competition in the U.S. women's national gymnastics championships in Hartford, Conn. Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)
Liz Lee arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday Aug. 28, 2011, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Liz Lee arrives to the 22nd Annual GLAAD Media Awards in New York, Saturday, March 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 17: Actress Jennifer Lawrence attends 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' photocall at the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2014 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 27: Actress AJ Michalka arrives to the premiere of Focus Features' 'That Awkward Moment' at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on January 27, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 09: Model Allegra Carpenter attends the model casting for David Jones Winter 2008 Collection Launch at David Jones's Elizabeth Street store on January 9, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. The casting saw more than 150 international models vying for the opportunity to appear on the catwalk alongside David Jones ambassador Megan Gale at the mid-February fashion extravaganza. (Photo by Gaye Gerard/Getty Images)
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Aubrey Plaza arrives at the LA Premiere of "The to Do List" at the Regency Bruin Theatre on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Katy Winn/Invision/AP)
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US actress US Amber Heard attends the De Grisogono Party during the 67th annual Cannes Film Festival at the Eden Roc hotel in Antibes, southeastern France, near Cannes, on May 20, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-CHRISTOPHE MAGNENET (Photo credit should read JEAN CHRISTOPHE MAGNENET/AFP/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 30: Actress Brie Larson arrives to a screening of A24's 'The Spectacular Now' at the Vista Theatre on July 30, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - JUNE 3: Miss Texas USA Brittany Booker competes in the swimwear competition during the 2012 Miss USA pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on June 3, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 14: Actress Candace Smith arrives at the screening of Roadside Attractions & Day 28 Films 'Gimme Shelter' at the Egyptian Theatre on January 14, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 10: Model Candice Swanepoel attends Maxim Hot 100 Event at the Pacific Design Center on June 10, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
British model Cara Delevingne launches the Mulberry Cara Delevinge Collection in the Ballroom at Claridge's during the 2014 Autumn / Winter London Fashion Week in London on February 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 30: Actress Carly Pope arrives to NBC Universal's 2010 TCA Summer Party on July 30, 2010 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30: Carmella DeCesare, wife of quarterback Jeff Garcia of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers watches warmups before play against the Houston Texans in a pre-season game at Raymond James Stadium on August 30, 2007 in Tampa, Florida. The Bucs won 31-24. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Cat Deely arrives at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 18, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by /Invision for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences/AP Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06: Carly Foulkes attends the 'Rock Of Ages' New York Special Screening at Sunshine Landmark on June 6, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
CULVER CITY, CA - JUNE 07: Actress Chloe Dykstra attends Spike TV's 'Guys Choice 2014' at Sony Pictures Studios on June 7, 2014 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 06: Singer/actress Clare Bowen of the cast of 'Nashville' performs at Best Buy Theater on May 6, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 08: Actress/singer Elena Satine attends AD Oasis at The Raleigh on December 8, 2012 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for Architectural Digest)
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Australian actress Emily Browning poses on the red carpet before the screening of 'Sleeping Beauty' presented in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival on May 12, 2011 in Cannes. AFP PHOTO / ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 18: Model Emily Didonato attends as Captain Morgan White Rum and Crown Royal XO raise a glass to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 50 Years of Swim Issue at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Beach House on February 18, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Captain Morgan and Crown Royal)
MILAN, ITALY - JUNE 21: Emily Ratajkowski attends the 'GQ Celebrates The Spring 2015 Milan Collection' on June 21, 2014 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for GQ)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 09: Actress Erin Cummins attends the Have A Heart For Children Charity fundrasing event at Palihouse Holloway on March 9, 2011 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13: Model Erin Heatherton walks the runway wearing Skirt with Swarovski Crystalsat the 2013 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at Lexington Avenue Armory on November 13, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Swarovski)
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BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JUNE 07: Actress Gabrielle Union attends the Press Junket Photo Call of Sony Pictures' 'Think Like A Man Too' at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on June 7, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment)
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LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25: Actress Hayden Panettiere attends the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - JUNE 14: Goalkeeper Hope Solo #1 of the United States takes her position in goal during the second half of a women's friendly soccer match against France on June 14, 2014 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 15: Model Heather Marks poses backstage at the Herve Leger by Max Azria Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at The Theatre at Lincoln Center on February 15, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for IMG)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 24: Actress Hilary Duff attends The 2014 MusiCares Person Of The Year Gala Honoring Carole King at Los Angeles Convention Center on January 24, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
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JoJo arrives at The 5th Annual Night Of Generosity Benefit at The Beverly HIlls Hotel on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Joanna Krupa arrives at the MAXIM Hot 100 Party on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 in West Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Television personality Jenny McCarthy signs copies of her new book "Stirring the Pot: My Recipe for Getting What You Want Out of Life" at Book Revue on Wednesday, May 7, 2014, in Huntington, New York. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP)
Josie Loren arrives at the Macy's Passport Fashion Show gala on Thursday Sept. 24, 2009, in Santa Monica, Calif. (AP Photo/Vince Bucci)
Model Joy Corrigan has her hair done backstage at the Nicolita Swimwear show at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim 2011 in Miami Beach, Fla. Monday, July 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 18: Actress Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting attends the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 18, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Actress Kate Upton attends 'The Other Woman' UK premiere at the Curzon Mayfair on April 2, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 16: Actress Kate Bosworth attends the launch of Kate Bosworth & Samantha Russ' Style Thief Fashion App at Chateau Marmont on July 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 17: Kelly Brooklaunches her new perfume 'Audition' at The Perfume Shop on March 17, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25: Actress Keke Palmer attends the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 20: Kim Kardashian attends Cassandra Huysentruyt Grey Hosts Artist In Residence Donald Robertson Tt VIOLET GREY Melrose Place on August 20, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for VIOLET GREY)
VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 28: Kirsten Dunst (in Miu Miu) attends Miu Miu Women's Tales Dinner at Ca Corner della Regina on August 28, 2014 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Miu Miu)
Krysten Ritter arrives at the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards on March 1, 2014 in Santa Monica, California. AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ (Photo credit should read ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 21: Actress Lake Bell attends ELLE's 20th Annual Women in Hollywood Celebration at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on October 21, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for ELLE)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 18: Actress Laura Ramsey attends the premiere of 'Are You Here' at ArcLight Hollywood on August 18, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 10: Actress Lea Michele attends FOX's 2014 Teen Choice Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on August 10, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 01: Leelee Sobieski attends the Christian Dior show as part of Paris Fashion Week Haute-Couture Fall/Winter 2013-2014 at Hotel Des Invalides on July 1, 2013 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 11: Leven Rambin arrives at the 3nd Annual Sean Penn & Friends HELP HAITI HOME Gala Benefiting J/P HRO Presented By Giorgio Armani at Montage Hotel on January 11, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
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WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 10: Model Lisalla Montenegro attends Maxim Hot 100 Event at the Pacific Design Center on June 10, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 19: TV personality Lindsay Clubine arrives to the Step Up Women's Network toast with Escada and Jessica Alba held in Forbes Penthouse Suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on April 19, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images For Escada)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25: Actress Lizzy Caplan attends the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Mary-Kate Olsen attends the 'Schiaparelli And Prada: Impossible Conversations' Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 02: Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead attends the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter on March 2, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 09: McKayla Maroney arrives at the 3rd Annual Cartoon Network's 'Hall Of Game' Awards held at Barker Hangar on February 9, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Paul A. Hebert/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 08: Actress Melissa Benoist attends 'TrevorLIVE LA' honoring Jane Lynch and Toyota for the Trevor Project at Hollywood Palladium on December 8, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 12: Actress Meagan Good walks the red carpet at Sony Pictures' 'Think Like a Man Too'Red Carpet Screening at Prince Music Theatre on June 12, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment)
US actress Megan Boone poses during a photocall for the TV show 'The Blacklist' as part of the 54th Monte-Carlo Television Festival on June 10, 2014 in Monaco. AFP PHOTO / VALERY HACHE (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 03: Michelle Keegan launches clothing line with Lipsy at ME Hotel on June 3, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Three-time Olympic gold medalist Misty May-Treanor teams up with Abreva to knock out cold sores this cold and flu season December 6, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for Abreva)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 15: Actress Rachel Nichols arrives at the premiere of Summit Entertainment's 'Alex Cross' at the Arclight Theater on October 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 02: (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains partial nudity.) Fashion Icon award recipient Rihanna attends the winners walk during the 2014 CFDA fashion awards at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on June 2, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 20: Actress Sarah Shahi attends the 'Person of Interest' press line during Comic-Con International 2013 at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel on July 20, 2013 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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NANJING, CHINA - AUGUST 25: Sarah Schneider of Germany celebrate a ball during the Women's Quarterfinal on day nine of Nanjing 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games at Sports Park Beach Volley Venue on August 25, 2014 in Nanjing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 20: Actress Scarlett Johansson attends the UK Film Premiere of 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' at Westfield London on March 20, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 23: Actress Selena Gomez attends Variety and Women in Film Emmy Nominee Celebration powered by Samsung Galaxy on August 23, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Variety)
CULVER CITY, CA - DECEMBER 02: Tameka Jacobs of 'Deal or No Deal' arrives to the VH1 Big in '06 Awards held at Sony Studios on December 2, 2006 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 11: Actress Teresa Palmer attends The Art Of Elysium's 7th Annual HEAVEN Gala Presented By Mercedes-Benz on January 11, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Buchan/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 27: Actress Vanessa Hudgens attends the 2014 Young Hollywood Awards brought to you by Samsung Galaxy at The Wiltern on July 27, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for Variety)
INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: Actress Victoria Justice attends the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK - MAY 04: Actress Wynona Ryder attends 'The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion' Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 4, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 06: Yvonne Strahovski attends the UK premiere of '24: Live Another Day' at Old Billingsgate Market on May 6, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 02: Actress Alison Brie attends the AMC celebration of the 'Mad Men' season 7 premiere at ArcLight Cinemas on April 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 16: Actor Dave Franco attends the Broadway opening night for 'Of Mice and Men' at Longacre Theatre on April 16, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Imagine what the Internet would be like if most major websites had imposed controls preventing the naked photos stolen from Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities from being posted online.
The Internet would be less sleazy, but pre-screening more content might also mute its role as a megaphone for exposing abuses in government, big companies and other powerful institutions.
To preserve the Internet as a free-wheeling forum, the U.S. Congress included a key provision in a 1998 law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that governs the online distribution of photos, video and text.
A "safe harbor" clause absolves websites of any legal liability for virtually all content posted on their services. The law, known as the DMCA, requires websites and other Internet service providers to remove a piece of content believed to be infringing on a copyright after being notified of a violation by the copyright owner.
Websites have been busily pulling the naked photos of Lawrence and other victims of the high-tech theft presumably because they are being notified of copyright violations or because the images violate the sites' terms of service. The copyright infringements are fairly blatant: The photos were likely taken by either the celebrities themselves or by someone else besides the thieves who hacked into their online accounts to heist copies stored on computers for online backup services such as Apple Inc.'s iCloud.
But the stolen photos weren't removed quickly enough to prevent an unknown number of people from making their own copies on their smartphones, tablets and personal computers.
Although the intrusion into the privacy of Lawrence and other stars probably would have been less rampant if websites weren't protected by the DMCA, most legal experts question whether requiring Internet companies to review content more vigilantly before it's posted would be worth setting precedents that could stifle free expression.
"If there is anything the American public dislikes more than an invasion of privacy, it's censorship," says Bruce Sunstein, a Boston attorney specializing in intellectual property rights.
HOW DID THE DMCA COME ABOUT?
As more people began to surf the Web in the mid-1990s, it became increasingly apparent that the Internet was making it easier for people to acquire and post all kinds of content. This made copyright violations more widespread, but music labels, movie studios and book publishers had to go to court to obtain orders to remove each piece of illegal content.
The DMCA represented Congress' attempt to address the copyright challenges posed by the Internet. Among other things, the legislation gave copyright holders a way to request their content to be removed simply by sending an email. Lawmakers also included the safe harbor provision to protect websites from lawsuits alleging that they should never have allowed the content to be posted in the first place.
Some of the safe-harbor protections have faced legal challenges, including a high-profile lawsuit that entertainment conglomerate Viacom Inc. filed against YouTube after the video site was sold to Google for $1.76 billion in 2006. Viacom alleged that YouTube management allowed copyrighted video to be brazenly uploaded to their site because they knew the material would attract more viewers and drive up the value of their company. Google and YouTube ultimately prevailed in the bitter dispute, largely because of the DMCA's safe harbor.
WHY WAS A SAFE HARBOR NEEDED?
If websites could be held liable for copyright violations, they would be thrust into the position of making judgment calls on a piece of content before it's posted online. That would be a daunting task, given the volume of material that Web surfers share on the Internet today. About 144,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube alone each day, while Twitter processes more than 500 million tweets per day and Facebook's 1.3 billion users share billions of photos.
"The platforms that host that content can't readily police all of it the way that a newspaper can carefully select what should go in as a letter to the editor," says Harvard University Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain, who is also co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
Some pre-screening of content is still done. YouTube prevents some video from being posted through a copyright-screening tool that was created after Google took over.
Not all copyright violations are caught, so Google is still inundated with takedown requests. In the past month alone, Google says it received requests to remove more than 31 million links in its search engine index directing traffic to content cited as copyright violations. That number doesn't include content posted on YouTube or its blogging service. Google says it complies with the overwhelming majority of the takedown requests.
It's probably a good thing that websites aren't asked to decide what's legal and what's not, says Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group focused on digital rights. She worries big companies would likely err on the side of caution and block more content than necessary because they wouldn't want to risk being held liable for something that could dent their earnings and stock price. Small startups, meanwhile, would also likely be prone to block a lot more content because they can't afford anything that could drain their finances.
"The Internet, as we know it, would not exist if it were not for the DMCA's safe harbor," McSherry says. "If we are ever in a position where Internet service providers have to monitor their sites, I think Internet users will lose."
DON'T WEBSITES ALREADY BLOCK OR REMOVE MATERIAL THAT DOESN'T INVOLVE COPYRIGHT VIOLATIONS?
Yes, but those decisions typically involve violations of a websites own rules. For instance, YouTube and Facebook try to block pornographic images from appearing on their services. Both of those sites, along with Twitter, also forbid graphic violence, such as the recent beheadings of U.S. journalists videotaped by the Islamic State militants that killed them. In many instances, though, the websites still rely on their own users to identify posted content that violates the terms of service.
"The lasting test here is of the ethical moment that users face when they choose to seek out or repost photos they know weren't meant to be public," Zittrain says.