The EU Could Vote to Wreck the Internet Tomorrow

Link taxes and mandatory copyright filters are still points of contention.

by Karl Bode
Sep 11 2018, 5:12pm

The EU is preparing to vote Wednesday on sweeping new copyright guidelines that could dramatically reshape the internet and potentially harm your ability to share content online.

As noted previously, the proposal is being driven by rights holders frightened by technological change, including brick and mortar publishers eager to blame companies like Google for their failure to evolve in the modern internet era.

And while the EU’s new Copyright Directive may be a well intentioned effort to modernize EU copyright rules, it still contains numerous provisions that could significantly harm the open internet. Most of those provisions remain largely intact despite a July vote that sent the proposal back to the drawing board in the wake of widespread activist backlash.

The most problematic provisions of the plan include new licensing fees for sharing anything more than “insubstantial” portions of content. Such a “link tax” could prove costly for small news outlets, and, depending on final wording, could put volunteer-centric organizations like Wikipedia at risk since the original proposal failed to include a noncommercial exception.

The most controversial component of the plan mandates that any website that lets users upload text, sounds, images, code, or other copyrighted works for public consumption (read: most of them) would need to employ automated copyright systems that filter these submissions against a database of copyrighted works at the website owner’s expense.

As we’ve consistently highlighted, such filters routinely don’t work very well.

Google’s Content ID system, for example, cost $100 million to develop, and routinely flags content for takedown that’s perfectly legitimate, and often not even covered by copyright. Earlier this year, a musician that uploaded a 10-hour video filled with nothing but white noise received five different takedown requests courtesy of companies that sell sleep therapy products.

Fighting these takedown requests can often be a costly and sisyphean affair, as recently documented by a German music professor who faced numerous takedown requests for classical music pieces that were in the public domain under German law.

“We already know that these systems are historically faulty and often lead to false positives,” the Wikimedia Foundation said in a blog post this week. “For example, consider the experience of a German professor who repeatedly received copyright violation notices when using public domain music from Beethoven, Bartók, and Schubert in videos on YouTube.”

It’s not hard to see how taking such a broken system and foisting it upon the better part of an entire continent could prove problematic.

And while there were more than 203 new amendments added to the EU copyright proposal ahead of tomorrow’s vote, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has complained that many of these changes are compromises in name only.

These non-improvements were courtesy of a “renewed lobbying campaign from the music and mainstream news industry” and “a conflicted and wavering set of Internet tech giants,” noted the EFF in a recent website post. The EFF has argued that Article 11 (the link tax”) and Article 13 (mandatory copyright filters) should be deleted from the text entirely.

Activist and author Cory Doctorow tells Motherboard that it’s impossible to know which direction the vote will go ahead of Wednesday’s vote, and that even if approved, it will still be some time before the law is fully imposed across the EU’s 28 member nations.

“After the vote, there's closed-door negotiations, another vote in January, and then national implementations in 28 member states,” Doctorow noted. Those individual countries will then have some leeway in interpreting the final directive and turning it into functional law. Said interpretations could result in measures that are better, or worse, than the original proposal.

The EU’s copyright plan was introduced in 2016, and has been bogged in confusing gamesmanship ever since. One thing remains clear: if passed with its most problematic components intact, the EU’s plan would not only impose new operational and cost burdens upon countless websites, but could also potentially harm free expression online.