Why copyright laws are under fire
New EU laws ‘to protect content creators’ have united consumer activists and tech firms in an unlikely alliance against the contentious changes
When anti-immigrant Australian minister Fraser Anning was hit with an egg by a teenager on live television, the video of this "egging" went viral.
Anning’s deeply offensive comments may never have been seen by the global audience had 17-year-old Will Connolly — now known as "Egg Boy" — not done it.
And because of the strict new copyright act passed last month by the EU, the footage from Australia’s Seven News network would also have been restricted from being used in the multiple memes that have emerged. Memes have thankfully been excluded from the law.
Article 17 (originally article 13) of the EU Copyright Directive, which is colloquially known as the "upload filter", covers the "use of protected content" and will affect sites like YouTube especially badly.
It is designed to ensure that any website which "gives the public access to copyright-protected works … uploaded by its users" gets permission from the copyright owners.
On the face of it, it seems like a good idea, but it is considered practically impossible. YouTube has 300 hours of video uploaded every minute. It will "harm Europe’s creative and digital industries", YouTube’s owner, Google, has warned — obviously.
The regulation was passed last week and in a bizarre additional controversy, 10 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) said they had pushed the wrong button and had thus voted the wrong way.
Soon afterwards 200 European academics condemned the copyright changes, saying "the implementation of this goal has been misguided". They reviewed the EU’s existing laws and independent evidence and concluded that articles 15 and 17 will do more harm than good. They should be deleted.
They added: "It does not happen often that there is wide scientific consensus on a contested policy issue. This is such a case, and policymakers need to take note."
The copyright proposals have also united consumer activists and tech companies, two groups whose interests seldom coincide, in opposition.
Article 13 is "an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users", warned 70 internet heavyweights in a letter last year. These included Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the world wide web, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales.
"The damage that this may do to the free and open internet as we know it is hard to predict, but … could be substantial."
The new laws will make websites liable for copyright infringement by their users, but advocates warn the cost will be borne by consumers.
Monique Goyens, the director-general of the European Consumer Organisation, says that despite warnings from academics, privacy advocates, UN representatives and consumers, this "very unbalanced copyright law" has been enacted.
"Consumers will have to bear the consequences of this decision. Their concerns had been voiced loud and clearly but MEPs chose to ignore them."
She adds: "The internet as we know it will change when platforms will need to systematically filter content that users want to upload. The internet will change from a place where consumers can enjoy sharing creations and ideas to an environment that is restricted and controlled."
The other controversial clause, article 15 (formerly article 11), known as the "link tax", will require any website that links to publishers, or uses snippets of articles, to get a licence from them. Not surprisingly, Google, which will be most affected, is also against this provision.
The European lawmaker who has driven this process, Axel Voss, says it was designed to protect the livelihood of content creators.
"This directive is an important step towards correcting a situation which has allowed a few companies to earn huge sums of money without properly remunerating the thousands of creatives and journalists whose work they depend on.
"This is a directive which protects people’s living, safeguards democracy by defending a diverse media landscape, entrenches freedom of expression, and encourages start-ups and technological development. It helps make the internet ready for the future, a space which benefits everyone, not only a powerful few."
That seems to be the right logic, but the impracticalities of implementing it are clearly not being properly considered, nor are the far-reaching ramifications for internet freedom.
As Wales tweeted: "You, the internet user, have lost a huge battle today in internet parliament. The free and open internet is being quickly handed over to corporate giants at the expense of ordinary people. This is not about helping artists, it is about empowering monopolistic practices."