EU Copyright Reform: The End of the Internet, or a Vital Boost for the Creative Industries?

Oct 09, 2018

The often tetchy Brexit negotiations aren’t the only controversial decisions being hotly debated within the European Union. Last month, EU lawmakers voted in favor of the draft Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market.

The EU Copyright Directive, as it’s known, is expected to pass into law when it comes to a final vote in January. It will remake the balance of power in copyright law in the European Union by compelling platforms such as Google/YouTube and Facebook to use filters to block the uploading of copyright-protected material, and forcing sites to pay publishers for snippets or links to news stories – referred to by critics as the “meme ban” and the “link tax.”

Opponents and supporters have lined up on either side of the issue with vociferous lobbying and media activity on both sides. Supporters of the Directive include major music labels, publishers, composers, mainstream newspapers, and some authors.

Filmmakers mobilized in support at the Venice Film Festival. More than 1,300 recording artists, including Sir Paul McCartney and Placido Domingo, voiced their support for the legislation. In an open letter to the European Parliament, McCartney identified a “value gap” between the value that User Upload Content platforms derive from music, and the compensation they pay to artists and music creators. The Directive, he said, “would address the value gap and help assure a sustainable future for the music ecosystem and its creators, fans and digital music services alike.”

In a similar vein, an alliance of major European press agencies including Agence France-Presse, the UK’s Press Association, and the European Alliance of News Agencies strongly supported the proposal. Free access to the news is “one of the great supposed victories of the internet”, they argued in an open letter. But, they say, Facebook and Google “offer internet users the work done by others… by freely publishing hypertext links to their stories” – and in so doing, their profits are booming while those of the news media are collapsing. “(N)either Facebook nor Google has a newsroom… They have no team of reporters in Syria risking their lives to show the true face of war. … No journalists in Cameroon. Nor Myanmar. No video reporters. No photographers. No editing teams to plan, edit, check and double-check the accuracy and impartiality of the stories sent in by reporters on the ground… reporting the news is not their business.”

Opponents are no less vocal. The “death of the meme” has been a frequent rallying cry, with critics claiming the new legislation will mean the end of internet users sharing photos or memes with family, friends and the wider world.

Adding their voices to the calls to overturn the legislation were Internet pioneers and luminaries such as the creator of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee; Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia; Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive; and MIT Media Lab Director Joichi Ito.

In an open letter, the group took aim at Article 13 of the Directive, which would require Internet platforms to automatically filter uploaded content. This, they said, “takes an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the Internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users.” In addition, the burden of Article 13 will fall heavily on startups and SMEs, yet automatic filtering technologies “have still not developed to a point where their reliability can be guaranteed.”

In a similar vein, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye worries that automated filtering may be poorly equipped to assess context in complex areas of law, such as copyright and counterterrorism. He has also expressed concern about automatic upload filters, writing that “States … should refrain from establishing laws or arrangements that would require the ‘proactive’ monitoring or filtering of content, which is both inconsistent with the right to privacy and likely to amount to pre-publication censorship.”

Also lining up with the opposition are human rights organizations, academics, and authors such as Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman (who worried in a Tweet that Article 13 leaves creators “vulnerable to censorship in copyright’s name”). SPARC Europe (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) is a non-profit focused on developing open access and open science, with members including academic institutions, library consortia, funding bodies and research institutes and has expressed concern that Articles 11 and 13 “will create burdensome and harmful restrictions on access to scientific research and data, as well as on the fundamental rights of freedom of information, directly contradicting the EU’s own ambitions in the field of Open Access and Open Science.”

Having passed last month’s vote in the European Parliament, the proposed legislation now enters a "trilogue" period of three-way negotiations between the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament before January’s final vote in the European Parliament, where commentators say it is likely to be approved. Expect the hashtags #SaveYourInternet #SaveTheLink to be in heavy rotation until then.

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