Tech by VICE

EU Ignores the Public, Passes Internet-Wrecking Copyright Proposal

Upload filters and link taxes may be well intentioned, but critics say they’re going to seriously screw up the open internet.

by Karl Bode
Mar 26 2019, 3:26pm

The European Union has passed a new controversial copyright proposal experts say will ruin the open internet and imperil free speech. In a vote of 348 to 274, the EU Parliament voted to approve a new Copyright Directive with its most-criticized components intact.

Advocates of the proposal have long argued the proposal would protect rights holders and content creators in the Google and Facebook era. But for more than a year, experts and activists have warned that the controversial new plan would impose draconian, unworkable, and hugely problematic limits on the open internet.

Of particular controversy is Article 13 (now Article 17 in the latest draft), which would require EU member states adopt automated internet filters intended to prevent users from uploading copyrighted content.

But critics have repeatedly warned that not only are such systems expensive for websites to implement, they don’t work particularly well. That’s been well demonstrated by YouTube’s $100 million Content ID system, which is routinely abused by copyright holders and frequently results in legitimate content being taken offline with little recourse for the end user.

Such systems are so broken, everything from public domain music recordings to even static have been pulled offline due to errant copyright claims. Worse, the EU proposal holds little recourse for legitimate content creators arbitrarily targeted by these takedown requests.

Another controversial aspect of the proposal, Article 11, demands that EU websites pay a “link tax” if they’re going to share any more than an “insubstantial” amount of content. Intended to help fund news operations in the Google era, critics like Wikimedia have routinely noted the plan would have a profoundly negative impact on online collaboration.

Such link taxes have been tried and failed in countries like Spain, and even many publishers don’t think proposal is a good idea, warning that such a system could open the door to cash grabs by less scrupulous online publishers.

The goal is to force companies like Google to pay content creators if they want to share snippets of news stories via Google News. But historically, when faced with these higher costs, Google will simply stop linking to such outlets at all.

Critics of the plan say the one-two punch of unreliable, expensive filters and layers of additionally costly and cumbersome link tax payments could threaten the very existence of many popular websites, particularly smaller startups that can’t afford the adherence requirements.

EU politicians like Julia Reda were quick to state the passage of the copyright directive was a “dark day for internet freedom.”

The passage was particularly problematic given overwhelming public and expert opposition. More than 200,000 Europeans took to the streets to protest the proposal last weekend, and an online petition calling for the removal of the most controversial parts of the proposal has received more than 5 million signatures.

“The free and open internet is being quickly handed over to corporate giants at the expense of ordinary people,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales lamented on Twitter. “This is not about helping artists, it is about empowering monopolistic practices.”

Details of individual laws will still need to be determined by each EU member country, which may be able to mitigate some of the damage by tailoring the law. But groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a statement that could take years, and given bigger tech companies may not oppose the rules, it will remain up to individual citizens to fight the effort.

“The battle will have to continue, as it has done in these last few weeks, with millions of everyday users uniting online and on the streets to demand their right to be free of censorship, and free to communicate without algorithmic censors or arbitrary licensing requirements,” the EFF said in a statement.