Last week, the European Parliament officially approved amendments to their Copyright Directive, the controversial legislation concerning online copyrighted content that holds hosting websites to account for their users’ actions. Fundamentally, the EU has unleashed the next great meme war on their citizens through Articles 11 and 13, also known as the “link tax” and “upload filter” — which both have keyboard warriors in a rightfully furious state.
According to The Verge, critics of the vote have labeled these laws the potential “death of the internet” and online free speech liberties. Meanwhile, supporters hailed the regulations with thunderous applause, declaring this a victory for artists, journalists and content creators behind original content posted online. The issue has divided Europeans across political aisles, leaving the future of the internet — including sites that operate outside their borders — in the hands of a select few EU bureaucrats as they continuously tweak the laws into unbelievable complexity throughout upcoming negotiations into 2019.
This isn’t the first time the legislation saw great resistance. In July, the directive was resoundingly rejected by the EU parliament following a staunch online liberty campaign that was championed by prominent technologists such as Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, as well as Sir. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web and the literal daddy of the internet. Following the introduction of 100 amendments to the laws, it’s unlikely we’ll see the directive rejected completely if these new results are anything to go by.
Why the Support?
Initially, these contested measures appear as pro-creator policies.
There’s a clear opposition to big tech platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and other enemies of the EU, claiming these platforms have a moral obligation to compensate creators (musicians, filmmakers, authors, journalists, and more) for the access value being generated on these sites.
In this modern age of web content, as companies grow into their monopoly status where centralized hosting networks are taking the vast majority of the value, the contributors creating the value are gaining little to no reward for their content.
After all, people use Google and Facebook to find the valuable links and their friends, not just to admire their latest font change or fake news gatekeeping. This leveling of the playing field appears quite admirable for a big government, however, there’s always a catch.
So Where’s the Damage?
Essentially, these amendments remove the right of online fair use.
Critics of the laws, such as Computing Forever, compare the process of copyright flagging to YouTube’s content ID system: where automatic bots scan videos for copyright material, such as songs, film clips, articles and questionable content, flagging the video and stripping it of its revenue and reach until review. The company estimates that over 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. This is an outstanding volume for one monopolistic company to handle, let alone a parliament trying to enforce this across the entire internet.
The process would inevitably lead to an unprecedented amount of copyright trolling campaigns, accidental flaggings, and would require an unbelievable database of stored content only the biggest of tech monopolies could even attempt to handle. “The Copyright Directive entrenches the power of dominant internet platforms, which are the only ones that can afford the automatic copyright filter,” Gus Rossi, the global policy director for the U.S. non-profit Public Knowledge, told The Verge last week.
The Problem with Article 11: “The Link Tax”
It’s important to understand the anti-monopoly intentions of the EU. Whether your view of the group is positive, negative or downright hatred, their record on GDPR, anti-trust and anti-surveillance against big tech can’t go unstated.
Article 11 is another example of the parliament allowing publishers, both large and independent, to demand paid licenses when the platforms directly share their stories, or through their users’ actions. Consider aggregators like Google News who generate monetized revenue by merely providing links to other websites. Shouldn’t these websites be entitled to at least some percentage of their ad sense revenue? There’s a legitimate conversation from both sides there.
The problem is this could be interpreted against the very same content creators these laws seem intended to protect. While there is a clear exemption for individuals, stating publishers “shall not prevent legitimate private and non-commercial use of press publications by individual users” (which can be read on page 54 of the amended document), are press publications entitled to revenue from their critics under the principle of fair use? The law isn’t clear what counts as a commercial platform, as blogs, RSS feeds, and Facebook pages blend the social with the commercial. Should we really be surprised old bureaucrats don’t understand the ever-evolving landscape of the internet?
This very article you’re reading — from our sharing of a YouTube video to the EU’s documents — counts under fair use. Should the EU demand a tax for our citing of their documents? How about a commentator relaying the same facts as our page? How are these values divided up? Is compensation decided per word, per snippet, paragraph, or just sharing it at all?
Julia Reda, MEP for the Pirate Party and a fierce critic of the directive, echoed similar concerns. “This hyperlinking exception would not work online because no one clicks on a URL that doesn’t include a brief description of what it’s linking to,” Reda told The Verge.
The Problem with Article 13: “Upload Filter”
This is the part where the fears of 2012’s failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) rears it’s ugly head once more. Now the EU has decided to crack down on the platforms “storing and giving access to large amounts of works and other subject-matter uploaded by their users” by holding them liable for copyright infringement committed by users.
In the United States, these standards were deemed unethical under Section 230 of the Communications Act, leaving any and all illegal acts committed by their users as the responsibility of the users alone. Europe doesn’t hold these same values, saying platforms and copyright holders must “cooperate in good faith” to prevent infringements. The problem is that laws, particularly from out-of-touch institutions, are terrible at defining what infringement is and what the appropriate punishment is (you won’t find such clear individual exemptions on page 56 of the amended document).
Must YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and every other small tech competitor implement scanning technology to ensure every piece of content is authentically their own, otherwise facing fines for crimes committed by other people on their platform? Once again, the goals of the EU seem bigger than an institution could possibly handle on this uncontrollable online space.
The technology doesn’t exist, the workforce isn’t there, and all the money in the world still couldn’t ensure these monopolies do the job without near-totalitarian levels of surveillance or unjust mistakes that disproportionately harm the little guy. It would mean every stone must be overturned for a threat, meaning the “kill your memes” crowd are nearing Orwellian levels where context is dead, and compensation is king. Talk about a very double-plus-ungood fate for the innocent shitposters of the world.
“There are two problems with this,” Reda continued to explain to The Verge. “The first is that exceptions or limitations to copyright on a European level are different from country to country, and a lot of countries do not have exceptions for memes, for example. The second problem is that even where memes are legal, upload filters would not be capable of distinguishing between them and infringing material. These laws are written to a large extent by politicians who don’t use the internet very actively. If you think the internet is made up of just YouTube and Facebook, you will come up with this sort of sweeping legislation.”