European Parliament has passed bill that could have a disastrous effect on the internet as we know it. The EU's Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, which was first introduced way back in 2016 and was passed by the EU Parliament on Tuesday, contains an article to force platforms to pay a tax to publishers whose content is shared on their services, and another that forces publishers to install automated filters to prevent the uploading of copyrighted material.
Article 11, which concerns aggregators like Google News which may share content from publications on its own platform, grows out of experiments in Germany and Spain that are ostensibly designed to give local publishers a cut of the profit that giant American companies like Google and Facebook make by advertising against the links and snippets of text their users post. The rule has had disastrous and counterproductive effects where it has been implemented. In Spain, the legislation caused Google News to pull out of the country entirely. Further studies show that the law caused a $10 million loss to the industry, primarily shouldered by smaller publishers that relied on the tech giants for distribution.
This new incarnation, which covers all of the EU's 28 member countries (with specific details of implementation left up to each individual country) will make it more difficult for publishers to simply pull out of Europe entirely, but likely not without additional collateral damage. Publishers, who will take a considerable hit if they lose access to giant platforms, would have an incentive to perhaps cut some sort of deal with behemoths like Facebook or Google.
However, as writer and activist Cory Doctorow pointed out in an article at Motherboardwhen the bill was up for a vote in 2018, the likely cost of such compromises is almost certainly the devastation of smaller publishers and smaller platforms, neither of which will have the leverage to broker a truce or the resources to navigate the regulations. The result? A tightening of big tech's stranglehold on the web.
Over the course of the bill's life, some modifications have been made in hopes of mitigating these concerns. 'Snippets' of news articles are allowed to be shared without payment, as are hyperlinks and even 'very short' articles in their entirety. Non-commercial encyclopedias like Wikipedia and open-source software platforms like GitHub are also exempted from any restrictions. And while this is certainly better than a more explicitly draconian approach, the grey area leaves a lot of room for interpretation that could result in a chilling effect regardless.
Article 13, meanwhile, deals with horrors that have haunted the internet in the United States as well. Much like the proposed SOPA and PIPA acts of 2012, the measure would require platforms to create and maintain expensive, expansive systems to monitor uploaded images and video for potential copyright violations. It's also similar to YouTube's currently existing ContentID system, famous for its perpetual over-zealousness which bad actors have been known to weaponize by submitting false copyright claims to exploit the system's bias towards ostensible copyright holders. Fortunately, the passed legislation has measures to try and limit the amount of collateral damage here as well, with memes and GIFs specifically excluded from the directive.
But despite these modifications, article 13 still places the duty of copyright policing onto platform holders and requires them to take action preemptively, instead of on copyright holders requests. This inevitably puts the rights of multibillion dollar companies to control every fleeting use of their intellectual property far above an average user's right to not be censored by an algorithm that's looking out for Disney's bottom line.
This transformation of power lead open internet advocates like World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales have signed onto an open letter begging EU regulators to reconsider in 2018, saying:
The damage that this may do to the free and open Internet as we know it is hard to predict, but in our opinions could be substantial. ... The cost of putting in place the necessary automatic filtering technologies will be expensive and burdensome, and yet those technologies have still not developed to a point where their reliability can be guaranteed.Indeed, if Article 13 had been in place when Internet’s core protocols and applications were developed, it is unlikely that it would exist today as we know it.
The directive was adopted by the EU Parliament on Tuesday by a vote of 348 in favor to 274 against with 36 abstentions, and while the Council of the European Union must ratify the bill before it finally becomes law, the council has expressed its intentions to do so. One passed into law, states in the EU will have two years to implement specific laws to adhere to the directive.
It's unclear how the effects of this legislation might affect regions outside of the EU, but the law will undoubtly force tech giants to develop and implement copyright robot censors to function in the Europe if they don't pull out of the market entirely. And once those systems exist, it will be easier for proponents of these measures to lobby for their adoption elsewhere.
All this comes after another bit of wide-reaching EU regulation in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in May of last year, forcing data-hungry companies like Facebook to offer up new privacy controls. But where GDPR caused corporate headaches in a way that may shake up the internet and leave it a safer place, these copyright restrictions are all but destined to make the web less open and less free, consolidating power among the powerful.
This article was originally published on 6/20/2018 and has been updated to reflect changes to the directive and its ultimate passage by the EU Parliament.
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