Opinion

Europe's New Link Tax Will Enshrine Big Tech's Stranglehold Over the Internet

Article 11 is a terrible copyright reform proposal that will fundamentally change how the internet works.

Cory Doctorow

Image: Shutterstock

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist, and blogger. He's the co-editor of Boing Boing. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate, is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Open University and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group.

On Wednesday, a European Union committee will vote on Article 11, a proposal to create a new copyright over links to news stories. If the proposal is adopted, a service that publishes a link to a story on a news website with a headline or a short snippet would have to get a license before linking. News sites could charge whatever they want for these licenses, and shut down critics by refusing to license to people with whom they disagreed. And the new rule would apply to any service where a link to a news story can appear, including social media platforms, search engines, blogging platforms, and even nonprofits like Wikipedia.

The news sites say that this rule will allow them to extract money from a handful of giant, mostly American internet companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Links on those services don't violate existing copyright laws because links, headlines and short snippets are either not copyrightable, or are exempted from copyright under fair dealing. News sites believe they should be getting a share of any profits related to those links, and this is how they propose to do it.

However you feel about the battles between these giant media companies and giant tech companies, you should be worried about this new link tax. For one thing, ironically enough it will help ensure that the tech giants of today can continue to rule the internet. Facebook and Google and Twitter will figure out how to deal with the link tax. Maybe they’ll share some of their profits with the big media companies, or maybe they’ll boycott the media companies until they agree to a “free license” (this is what happened when Germany tried this a few years ago.) Either way, they can afford to manage the cost.

But if you are hoping that someday there will be alternatives to these giants—European alternatives, say, that are responsive to the needs of European citizens, or just platforms that offer something different, maybe no surveillance of their users, or different rules on cyberbullying and harassment—then the link tax dashes your hopes.

The cost of complying with the link tax will make starting a competitor to one of those platforms effectively impossible. For one thing, the EU is planning on leaving the details of the link tax up to each of its 28 member states, with no limits on how restrictive these rules can be. Under Article 11, members could create link taxes that required a license for quoting even very short snippets from an article. Even if some states create more sensible rules, it won't matter, because the only way to stay out of trouble is to comply with all 28 versions of the rule, so the most restrictive rule will be the one to which everyone defaults.

Another problem: it could crush scholarly and encyclopedic projects like Wikipedia that only publish material that can be freely shared. Even if the publishers give open access scholars and Wikipedia free licenses to link to them, those licenses likely won’t be compatible with open access rules.

Worse, this tax could inhibit important political discussions. Links are facts: "There is an article at this address, with this title." They are the facts that tell you what is going on in our public discourse, who is saying what. If you think your government is lying, or if you think the government's critics are lying, or if you think a story is a hoax or disinformation, links are the best way to talk about it with your neighbours.

As usual, the European Parliament is mostly hearing from giant media companies and giant tech companies on this—but they're not hearing from Europeans, the people whose communications are at stake. Neither Big Tech nor Big Content are good proxies for the public interest—both answer to their shareholders, not to democratic discourse.

You have today, tomorrow, and Wednesday to write, call or tweet your MEP; they need to hear from you.