EU rejects copyright reform in victory for internet activists

The European Parliament has rejected a proposed update to its 2001 Copyright Directive, after passing the initial vote at the legal affairs committee on June 20.

MEPs voted by a margin of 40 votes to stop progress in negotiations to the update that, supporters argued, would give media and publishers better remuneration in the digital age.

Digital rights activists have said the proposed update would restrict internet freedom, describing the proposal as creating a “censorship machine.” The issue will be re-visited later this year.

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Julia Reda, a Pirate Party MEP who had campaigned against the legislation, tweeted: “Great success: Your protests have worked! The European Parliament has sent the copyright law back to the drawing board.”

Prior to the vote, across Europe, the Italian, Spanish, and Polish language versions of Wikipedia went black in protest. More than 70 internet pioneers including World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and WikiTribune, and Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle signed an open letter against the change.

A petition against the reforms led by critical MEPs called “Save Your Internet” gathered more than 700,000 signatures.

On the other hand, famous musicians and industry figures came forward in support for the law, notably former Beatles star Paul McCartney, who wrote in an open letter that the copyright proposal would make the music industry more sustainable.

Screenshot of Wikipedia Spanish blackout to protest the EU Copyright Directive vote. License: CC 0. Credit: Wikipedia Spanish

The proposed update aimed to modernize copyright legislation for the digital age. Critics pointed out that two key changes, Article 11 and Article 13, could have negative consequences in how users share, use, and consume information, with some citing the “death of memes.”

Article 11, dubbed the “link tax,” provided that anyone linking to snippets of news stories would have to get a paid license. Article 13, referred to as a “censorship machine,” proposes platforms implement automatic filtering systems for copyright.

The open internet could have disappeared

“If bad automated filters become the standard, the open internet will disappear,” said Martin Kretschmer, a professor in intellectual property rights at Glasgow University.

Lionel Bently, professor in intellectual property law at Cambridge University, told WikiTribune that overall, we would have seen a “less interesting internet” if it had gone through. But he had a bigger concern. Such an internet “might be thought justifiable if revenues increase for rights-holders. There, however, we meet the real problem – Google’s market power.”

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This was a core concern of critics: the copyright proposal would end up hurting smaller publishers and consumers instead, as this happened when similar laws were enacted in Germany and Spain.

“On Article 11 specifically, when a similar version was adopted in both Germany and Spain – there were some criticisms with many saying that it achieved the opposite objective to what it was aiming to do,” said Alex Mayer, a British MEP.

“Instead of helping journalists, it resulted in larger publications benefiting from the new publishers’ rights. I would be concerned if the legislation were to result in a boost of support for big press publishers, whilst seeing the rights of artists, creators and software developers remain unimproved,” she told WikiTribune.

Supporters argue fairness and sustainable pay

Supporters of the law said it was never about censorship but fairly paying artists, musicians and other creators.

“This is not about censorship of the internet, as the likes of Google and Facebook would have you believe. The primary focus of this legislation is concerned with whether or not the internet functions as a fair and efficient marketplace – and currently it doesn’t,” wrote leaders of publishing industries in an open letter.

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“Music and culture matter. They are our heart and soul,” McCartney wrote in his open letter. “The proposed copyright directive … [will] help assure a sustainable future for the music ecosystem and its creators, fans and digital music services alike.”

Others include French electronic musician Jean-Michel Jarre, who argued that tougher laws will ensure artists get fairly compensated for their work.

Axel Voss, the man in charge of the reforms, called much of the lobbying campaign and concerns against the copyright proposal as “fake news” in a tweet.

Critics argue law strong in principle, vague in practice

Who can the EU learn from? According to Bently, the United States’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a “good starting point.” Filters, he admits, are a “fact of life” and used by many operators.

“[We need to] make sure that where they are used the law gives users strong remedies where content is wrongly filtered … But there is no substantial protection [such as human monitoring or notice and take down] of this sort in the Directive,” he told WikiTribune.

Filtering algorithms are notoriously bad at differentiating between infringement and the legal use of copyright material. YouTube’s Content ID filtering system, for example, is routinely abused and has harmed legitimate content. Another issue is that smaller companies will end up buying cheaper software that does a worse job at filtering.

Filters or content recognition technologies, Cambridge’s Bently told WikiTribune, are “well known to over-block, so the likelihood is that creative and free expression may not make it online.”

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“The mechanisms in Article 13 (2) are weak compared with, [for example] the U.S. DMCA. The more operators required to use cheap filters, the more over-blocking [there is]; yet these same operators are the least likely to have substantial processes to defend user interests.”

What was “most problematic” about Article 13, said Bently, is that “what it requires of online content sharing service providers is extremely vague … That uncertainty [is] intolerable.”

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