A university student is suing exam proctoring software maker Proctorio to “quash a campaign of harassment” against critics of the company, including an accusation that the company misused copyright laws to remove his tweets that were critical of the software.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the lawsuit this week on behalf of Miami University student Erik Johnson, who also does security research on the side, accused Proctorio of having “exploited the DMCA to undermine Johnson’s commentary.”
Twitter hid three of Johnson’s tweets after Proctorio filed a copyright takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, alleging that three of Johnson’s tweets violated the company’s copyright.
Schools and universities have increasingly leaned on proctoring software during the pandemic to invigilate student exams, albeit virtually. Students must install the school’s choice of proctoring software to grant access to the student’s microphone and webcam to spot potential cheating. But students of color have complained that the software fails to recognize non-white faces and that the software also requires high-speed internet access, which many low-income houses don’t have. If a student fails these checks, the student can end up failing the exam.
Despite this, Vice reported last month that some students are easily cheating on exams that are monitored by Proctorio. Several schools have banned or discontinued using Proctorio and other proctoring software, citing privacy concerns.
Proctorio’s monitoring software is a Chrome extension, which unlike most desktop software can be easily downloaded and the source code examined for bugs and flaws. Johnson examined the code and tweeted what he found — including under what circumstances a student’s test would be terminated if the software detected signs of potential cheating, and how the software monitors for suspicious eye movements and abnormal mouse clicking.
Johnson’s tweets also contained links to snippets of the Chrome extension’s source code on Pastebin.
Proctorio claimed at the time, via its crisis communications firm Edelman, that Johnson violated the company’s rights “by copying and posting extracts from Proctorio’s software code on his Twitter account.” But Twitter reinstated Johnson’s tweets after finding Proctorio’s takedown notice “incomplete.”
“Software companies don’t get to abuse copyright law to undermine their critics,” said Cara Gagliano, a staff attorney at the EFF. “Using pieces [of] code to explain your research or support critical commentary is no different from quoting a book in a book review.”
The complaint argues that Proctorio’s “pattern of baseless DMCA notices” had a chilling effect on Johnson’s security research work, amid fears that “reporting on his findings will elicit more harassment.”
“Copyright holders should be held liable when they falsely accuse their critics of copyright infringement, especially when the goal is plainly to intimidate and undermine them,” said Gagliano. “We’re asking the court for a declaratory judgment that there is no infringement to prevent further legal threats and takedown attempts against Johnson for using code excerpts and screenshots to support his comments.”
The EFF alleges that this is part of a wider pattern that Proctorio uses to respond to criticism. Last year Olsen posted a student’s private chat logs on Reddit without their permission. Olsen later set his Twitter account to private following the incident. Proctorio is also suing Ian Linkletter, a learning technology specialist at the University of British Columbia, after posting tweets critical of the company’s proctoring software.
The lawsuit is filed in Arizona, where Proctorio is headquartered. Proctorio CEO Mike Olson did not respond to a request for comment.