To Serve and Protect

Europe Votes for Tougher Internet Copyright Laws

Last Wednesday, a European Parliament committee voted in favour of tougher European copyright laws. For several years, the EU has been working on updating its copyright rules for the digital age in an effort to ensure fair pay for content owners and creators such as artists and journalists.

Although representatives in the EU Council still need to vote on the reforms before the directive becomes law, that seems like a formality at this point. A majority of European governments openly back the current proposal. The vote by the Legal Affairs Committee is likely to be the parliament’s official stance as it negotiates with EU countries on a common position. A final vote will take place in parliament, perhaps before the end of the year.

The updated copyright rules were proposed by the European Commission two years ago, and are designed to take into account the growing role of online platforms, requiring them to share revenue with publishers and bear liability for copyright infringements on the Internet. The general rules in force on copyright date back to 2001, and many of the copyright exceptions in European law are currently optional and do not apply across borders.

There was opposition to the proposal, mainly because of two articles of the proposed new law: Articles 11 and 13. Article 11, or the so-called neighbouring right for press publishers, could mean that Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other hosts of third-party information might have to pay content owners for displaying bits of information from other sites. For example, Google could be required to pay royalties to show news snippets.

The new rules will also place more responsibility on social services. Article 13 would require platforms such as YouTube, GitHub and Instagram to install filters to prevent users from uploading copyrighted materials or seek licences to display content. The article puts the onus on Web sites to enforce copyright rules and could mean that every online platform that allows users to post text, sounds, code or images will need some form of content-recognition system to review all material that users upload.

There have been supporters and detractors on both sides of this issue. While content owners understandably have been lobbying for tighter restrictions on content sharing, companies that aggregate the information along with many individuals foresee a clampdown on the spirit of the Internet itself.

A coalition of luminaries of the tech world including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Bruce Schneier, Jimmy Wales and Mitch Kapor penned an open letter to the European Parliament’s president to oppose Article 13. According to them, though well-intended the requirement is turning into a tool for automated surveillance and control.

One indirect consequence of the new rules could be a shift in the power of several mega US technology companies, thanks to what some currently regard as haphazard content sharing. At a minimum, Facebook, Google and Microsoft will have to make adjustments to their services, policing material to a greater extent.

For EU regulators, this is certainly a balancing act. There is certainly some validity to the “free rider” argument and it’s not challenging to find abuses of the concept of fair use. The goal is to protect the rights of content owners while supporting open services. The larger ramifications are uncertain. If the centre of Internet power is on the West Coast of the US, the European Parliament has placed a stake in the ground that could affect the rest of the world.