We’re just a lawsuit away from seeing the limits of Web 2.0

By Ethan Stanislawski

Congratulations! You have joined the ranks of Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. That’s because you are reading a publication that is published online and maintains three official blogs. The print version of the Maroon, however, is quickly going the way of the typewriter.

The talk about Web 2.0 has dominated the media almost as much as Web 2.0 itself. Thanks to by-products of the mid-1990s Internet boom, the public is beginning to control the media as much as its members do. For instance, when Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest opened to near universal pans from the mainstream media, a major controversy swirled on all levels of the press over the legitimacy of newspaper critics. No newspaper would have threatened its own authority if bloggers hadn’t beaten them to it.

Before we tear down the statues of William Randolph Hearst, we must recognize one glaring obstacle for Web 2.0: YouTube, one of its core institutions, is just a lawsuit away from being completely disempowered. All of Web 2.0 may come down with it.

In case you weren’t aware, YouTube has thrived on an extremely tenuous legal precedent. It is protected by the safe harbor clause of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which states that an online service provider (OSP) is exempt from legal action if it promptly takes down copyrighted material when an allegation of infringement is made. This leads to YouTube users searching for NBC and Viacom videos playing a constant game of “now you see it, now you don’t.”

But wait, there’s more to the safe harbor exemption. In order to be exempt from legal action, the OSP must “not have actual knowledge that the material or an activity using the material on the system or network is infringing” and “not receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity, in a case in which the service provider has the right and ability to control such activity.” If YouTube workers personally regulate content for pornographic material, clearly they must be able to identify a clip from Desperate Housewives.

As for the financial benefit, while the majority of videos are of non-copyrighted user content, the majority of visitors go to YouTube to view copyrighted material; hence, the majority of advertising revenue is reaped from copyrighted material. After reading this, I dare you to look at today’s most viewed YouTube videos. You’ll be lucky to find more than two of the top 20 that aren’t copyrighted.

Furthermore, Google’s purchase of YouTube has cleared the way for a virtually infinite number of conteny-owners to sue the pants off a company with immensely deep pockets. It’s a wonder it hasn’t happened already.

As Google goes, however, so does Web 2.0. The real threat to the phenomenon is not a financial loss by Google, but a change in the legality by which Google operates. If a federal court ruling forces Google to shut down YouTube in its current state, we may be sent back to the dark ages of 2000, when Napster faced a similarly damaging ruling. With all the talk of the masses taking over the media, we are on the verge of having the rug pulled from under us. What’s more, people forget how much their grassroots tools are controlled by the top-down establishment. How many hyper-liberal rock bands care that they are essentially being promoted by Fox News? Newscorp owns MySpace, after all.

Ultimately, though, the Internet still has the mechanisms in place to overcome a court ruling. If YouTube becomes the next Napster, the creation of the next Kazaa and Limewire will inevitably follow. The Internet has provided the means to overcome any restrictions placed on collecting information. If we are to address that change head on, we will have to fundamentally overhaul the nature of American copyright law, and the current definition of personal privacy may have to be overhauled as well.