The EU’s Terrible, Internet-Wrecking Copyright Plan Lurches Forward

While not yet a law, the EU’s plan for unreliable internet filters and expensive link taxes continues to make progress.

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Jun 20 2018, 3:14pm

The European Union has taken another step forward in passing a suite of new copyright proposals that could dramatically harm consumer freedom and the internet as we know it.

Despite a massive, international backlash from activists and experts, the EU’s Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) this morning voted in favor of the EU’s new Copyright Directive. The committee also approved two portions of the proposal that could result in both draconian internet filtering, and a highly-controversial “link tax” placed on those that share news stories.

As we’ve noted previously, Article 13 of the EU’s plan would mandate 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 systems that filter these submissions against a database of copyrighted works at the website owner’s expense.

But such automated filtering systems are not just expensive for websites to implement, they don’t work particularly well. As YouTube’s Content ID system repeatedly shows, such systems are routinely abused by copyright holders, resulting in legitimate use of copyrighted materials being censored (the Prince dancing baby fracas being just one of countless examples).

As activist Cory Doctorow recently noted in a piece for Motherboard, there’s simply no penalties built in to the proposal to help police this kind of abuse by aggressive copyright holders.

“If you post something that is wrongly snared by a filter, either because someone falsely laid claim to it, or because the filter ignored your fair dealing rights, you have no real remedies,” notes Doctorow. “You can meekly ask the company to unblock your material, and if you disagree with their (eventual) response, you can hire lawyers and sue to have your material uncensored.”

The potential for abuse here is massive, impacting everything from your ability to upload clever memes that may contain copyrighted images, to your right to upload videos that contain even a snippet of copyrighted music. As it stands, nothing in the EU’s plan addresses the high cost of implementation or the wide-ranging potential for international abuse.

And Article 13 is just part of the problem. Article 11 of the proposal meanwhile advocates the creation of a “link tax” that would create a new copyright specifically governing news stories.

Misguidedly-crafted by brick and mortar publishers eager to blame companies like Google for their failure to evolve in the modern broadband era, the proposal levies a fee on anyone looking to share a snippet of published news content, like the quoted blocks you’ll routinely see in many online news stories or blog posts.

Similar proposals have been tried and failed in countries like Spain, and even many publishers don’t think proposal is a good idea. The proposal requires payment for those sharing any more than “insubstantial” portions of published content, but the term “insubstantial” isn’t clearly defined, opening the door for cash grabs by publishers that don’t understand the internet.

Such a link tax would be particularly problematic for organizations like the Wikimedia Foundation, which recently noted the plan would be “detrimental to the efficient and effective global online collaboration that has been Wikipedia’s foundation for the past 16 years.”

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.

The proposal won’t officially become EU law until passed by the entire European Parliament in a plenary vote, which isn’t expected until the tail end of this year or early 2019. There’s also some potential for improvement during closed-door “trilogue negotiations” between EU legislators and member states—though this process has been derided for being entirely non-transparent.

In the interim, activists, consumers and concerned businesses alike are urging internet users to contact members of the European Parliament before the EU’s problematic plan takes any additional steps forward.