The formal death of net neutrality and the AT&T-Time Warner merger have received plenty of justified attention this week for the numerous ways they will negatively impact free speech and internet competition. But activists, startups, and businesses alike warn that a new copyright proposal out of the European Union has the potential to cause even greater damage to the internet as we know it.
The EU proposal in question is an attempt to shore up existing problems with EU copyright law. But the poorly crafted nature of the effort could have a profoundly negative impact on everything from your ability to share hot memes to the survival of new startups. For example, Article 13 of the plan declares that any website that lets users upload text, sounds, images, code, or other copyrighted works for public consumption will need to employ automated systems that filter these submissions against a database of copyrighted works. Such automated internet filters (whether policing speech, porn, or copyrighted material) not only routinely don’t work very well, they tend to result in rampant collateral damage as legitimate content gets caught in the poorly-crafted automated dragnet. From videos that happen to have copyrighted music playing in the background (you might recall the infamous Prince baby dancing fracas), to memes that happen to contain commercial images, there’s numerous reasons for website users to upload copyrighted material. But thanks to overreach by many copyright holders, nuance is a frequent casualty in the copyright debate.
Meanwhile, under Article 13, companies would need to eat the costs of implementing such automated copyright screening systems, while paying licensing fees to utilize the underlying filtering technology. Sites then need to build an internal process allowing rights holders to routinely update a master list of copyrighted works.
“The only companies providing anything like the kinds of filters envisioned by the rule are in the USA, meaning, in effect, that European companies will have to send all Europeans' public utterances to machine-learning filters run by American companies to decide whether or not they are publishable,” writer and activist Cory Doctorow tells Motherboard. Websites like Reddit were quick to note that the one-two punch of unreliable filters and layers of cumbersome adherence requirements could threaten the very existence of many popular websites.
“This law does not anticipate the difficult practical questions of how companies can know what is an infringement of copyright,” Reddit said in a statement. “As a result of this big flaw, the law’s most likely result would be the effective shutdown of user-generated content platforms in Europe, since unless companies know what is infringing, we would need to review and remove all sorts of potentially legitimate content if we believe the company may have liability.”
And while Article 13 is designed to punish any website that fails to filter out copyright infringement, critics charge there’s no safeguards in place to prevent copyright holders from abusing the system. That’s already a major problem with filtering systems like YouTube’s ContentID, which is routinely abused to the detriment of legitimate content.
Groups like the Wikimedia Foundation have also come out firing against the proposal, stating it’s “detrimental to the efficient and effective global online collaboration that has been Wikipedia’s foundation for the past 16 years.” The Foundation notes that the costs of compliance could have a particularly-profound impact on smaller startups.
“Automatic content detection systems are very expensive,” notes the organization. “Requiring all platforms to implement these filters would put young startups that cannot afford to build or buy them at a tremendous disadvantage. This would hurt, not foster, the digital single market in the European Union, as it would create a tremendous competitive advantage for platforms that already have implemented such filters or are able to pay for them.”
Numerous other flaws have been routinely highlighted by critics and activists.
For example, Article 11 of the proposal was constructed with an eye on making companies pay when they use even short snippets of text from news publications. Affectionately dubbed a “link tax,” the misguided plan is being driven by a handful of publishers that believe that Google and Facebook are somehow unfairly profiting off of their work. Under this part of the proposal, websites that share content would be subject to licensing fees for sharing anything more than “insubstantial” portions of content, something that also puts resources like Wikipedia at risk since the proposal fails to include a noncommercial exception. Similar efforts in Spain and Germany have failed, leaving China as the only major nation that believes automated wholesale copyright filters are a good idea. Spain’s implementation of this concept resulted in Google News shutting down in the country entirely, resulting in publishers actually seeing a notable decline in overall traffic.
Even many online publishers don’t think the link tax is a good idea. And since each EU nation is left to determine the definition of “insubstantial,” many critics of the new EU copyright rules say things could quickly become problematic for commercial and non-commercial entities alike. “This fundamentally contradicts the aim to create a Digital Single Market with common rules, which is right there in the title of the planned law,” notes Julia Reda, a Member of the EU Parliament. “Instead of one Europe-wide law, we’d have 28, with the most extreme becoming the de-facto standard.” The proposal’s added costs and layers of burdensome new compliance requirements are also being lambasted by a massive number of major internet luminaries, including TCP/IP creator Vint Cerf, security legend Bruce Schneier, and World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee.
“We support the consideration of measures that would improve the ability for creators to receive fair remuneration for the use of their works online,” the group stated in a letter. “But we cannot support Article 13, which would mandate Internet platforms to embed an automated infrastructure for monitoring and censorship deep into their networks. For the sake of the Internet’s future, we urge you to vote for the deletion of this proposal.”
Fortunately the proposal isn’t official yet. The plan will be up for a committee vote in six days, with a parliamentary vote in July or late September. Meanwhile, websites like SaveYourInternet.eu and ChangeCopyright.org are trying and convince EU lawmakers to back away from the proposal before it has a chance to wreck the internet as we know it.