Dropbox Explains DMCA Takedowns

In recent months, Internet users have become uncomfortably aware that their online activities are often far from private.

Thanks to a constant stream of revelations relating to cyber-privacy (or the lack of it), individuals are starting to become far more protective of the information they share online.

However, even those most sceptical of the real-life lack of privacy were surprised when, a few weeks ago, it was revealed that a user of the popular Dropbox cloud service had had a file blocked from sharing, following a request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

These takedown requests are rather common in the grand scheme of things, and anyone who shares files within the “grey areas” of copyright legislation is undoubtedly familiar with them. What was shocking about the Dropbox news was that people have become used to treating Dropbox as a personal storage area—almost an extension to their hard drive. People (perhaps naively) assumed that Dropbox didn’t snoop in their personal folders.

Now, Dropbox have officially clarified their position, essentially to reassure people that there isn’t really any actual snooping going on.

Dropbox use a process known as “file hashing” to detect identical files. They use this to cut back on storage requirements. If someone tries to upload a large file with the same “hash value” as a file already elsewhere on the service, it’s clear the file is the same, and Dropbox simply provides access to that instead.

However, since the story emerged, it’s also become clear that Dropbox also use file hashing to identify hash values that correspond with files that are known to be in breach of copyright regulations (and subject to DMCA takedown requests).

So while Dropbox may not be actually looking inside their’ user’s accounts, they can’t deny that their hashing system detects potentially illegal content as a matter of course.

In the case of the user who noticed the warning, Dropbox didn’t actually remove the file from their account; they simply stopped them sharing it. But for Dropbox users the world over, it’s now abundantly clear that the “powers that be” can quickly detect if accounts are being used to store files that should be covered under copyright. Anyone with a lackadaisical approach to their online privacy should take note.


Ben Taylor Ben was a geek long before "geek chic," learning the ropes on BBC Micros, before moving on to Atari STs and IBM compatibles. He was "online" using a 1200bps modem before the Internet was even a thing. Now, after two decades in the industry, he writes about technology for various publications, operates a few websites of his own, and runs a bespoke IT consultancy based in London.

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