Since 2016, the EU has been working on an update to its copyright laws, in order to make them more adequate to the digital age. The proposed directive, which has been the subject of acerbic public debate, aggressive lobbying and massive grassroots campaigns, is approaching the final vote in the plenary of the European Parliament on the 25-28 March.
While supporters of the bill point to its benefits for European artists and journalists, critics have argued that the proposed laws leave ample room for abuse and would result in sweeping censorship. Articles 11 and 13 of the new directive are the most contentious.
Article 11 would mandate that aggregation websites, like search engine Google or link sharing platform Reddit, will have to pay licences for each piece of copyrighted content that they link to, if said link is accompanied by a quote from the copyright-protected work. Dubbed the ‘link tax’, Article 11 has been lambasted on the grounds that it is unrealistic to require platforms to acquire licences to every possible work that a user or algorithm might link to. Furthermore, there is doubt that copyright can even extend to short illustrative quotes. The result could be a decrease in diversity on the Web. Nonetheless, supporters of the measure believe that it will lead to fair remuneration for journalists, whose work is indirectly exploited for profit by Internet platforms at no cost to themselves.
Article 13 would obligate the owners of Internet platforms where content is user-submitted, like YouTube, Facebook or Wikipedia, to install mechanisms that prevent copyright infringing material from appearing on their platforms. Owing to the bill’s wording, it is widely held that the way to achieve this is likely automated upload filters. That is software which scans each uploaded document for copyright infringing material, and, if it detects any, it does not allow the material to be published. Because accurate content filtering software is far from being reality, it is likely that internet platforms will choose to err on the side of caution to minimize risks to themselves. Hence, they would overfilter rather than underfilter, thus preventing some legal material from seeing the light of day as collateral damage. Parodies, memes, remixes and illustrative fragments would likely be the first victims, since even the most advanced algorithms have great difficulty in distinguishing between such legitimate uses of copyrighted material and infringement. This effect has been called a “censorship machine” by activists who oppose the directive. It has also been pointed out that this approach is ripe for abuse by malicious actors wishing to censor others’ speech by means of copyright claims. However, media groups and some artists have argued that Article 13 is a proportionate measure against infringement, which is rampant on the Internet and tedious to fight against.
Upload filters also signal a fundamental shift in philosophy for internet legislation. Presently, online platform owners cannot be held liable for infringing content posted by users on their platforms, if they comply with requests from the copyright holders to delete the infringing content. With upload filters, however, the approach changes to a “guilty until proven innocent” model where all uploads are seen as potentially illegal from the start, and cannot go public until they get approval.
A less headline-grabbing, but potentially problematic section of the directive has been the part regulating text and data mining, which critics say impedes scientific research, particularly into artificial intelligence.
Media and publishing groups have been remarkably split on the issue of the proposed copyright directive. Organizations such as Discovery, Warner Music Group, the European Writer’s Council and the European Federation of Journalists, as well as invididuals like musicians Paul McCartney and James Blunt, have come out in support of the directive. On the other hand, dissident voices opposing the proposal include media company Bertelsmann, actor Stephen Fry and writer Neil Gaiman.
Consolidation of big tech?
A group of internet pioneers including world wide web creator, Tim Berners-Lee, and Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, signed an open letter in June 2018 stating article 13 would take “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”.
The Directive has received support from publishers, major music labels, mainstream newspapers and some artists, including Paul McCartney.
Publishing trade groups have made claims of a disinformation campaign being orchestrated by organisations such as Wikipedia and Google. The European Newpaper Publishers Association state that Article 11 specifically excludes uses by individuals and hyperlinks. They criticise what they call a “bad-faith attempt to discredit a proposed directive aiming at re-balancing a digital ecosystem dominated by platforms”.
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Tell European lawmakers to fix the Copyright Directive.
MEPs defy warnings from internet pioneers, civil liberties groups and commercial interests
The Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market 2016/0280(COD), also known as the EU Copyright Directive, is a controversial proposed European Union directive intended to ensure “a well-functioning marketplace for the exploitation of works and other subject-matter… taking into account in particular digital and cross-border uses of protected content”.