Members of the European Parliament are preparing to vote on a set of copyright rules that supporters are hailing as a new dawn for beleaguered creatives and critics are warning will spell doom for the internet.
The vote comes just a few weeks after another set of apocalyptic rules — known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR — went into effect, threatening stiff penalties for improper use of individuals’ personal information. Now EU officials will vote on the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market.
The proposal, with its rather bland-sounding name, has been under consideration for two years and is causing much gnashing of teeth over concerns that it will create unreasonable burdens for online companies forced to monitor potential copyright infringements. From tiny websites to giants like Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia, companies could now be far more liable for such violations, no matter how quickly they remove the infringing content.
To protest the vote, Wikipedia’s sites in Spain and Italy went dark this week. Meanwhile, 70 big internet names signed a letter this week asking the EU Parliament to kill the proposal. “The damage that this may do to the free and open internet as we know it is hard to predict, but in our opinions could be substantial,” says the letter, whose signatories include Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee.
So what exactly is causing all the fuss? The lengthy proposal is meant to update EU copyright rules that have been in place since 2001. But there are two parts that worry critics: Articles 11 and 13.
Article 13 would make digital platforms legally responsible for any copyright infringements by users on their platform. Currently, the law places more responsibility on individuals who upload problematic content. Platforms such as YouTube or Facebook aren’t legally responsible, as long as they can show they’re making a good-faith effort to police such content and responding quickly to requests to take it down.
Critics worry that taking a more aggressive stance will be costly, perhaps too costly for smaller players, and that the restriction will severely curtail the sharing of content across the web.
The other troublemaker is Article 11, which may require websites to pay some kind of fee to publishers that link to their content or display excerpts of their articles.
Cory Doctorow, author and special advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, warns that the algorithms and bots the legislation proposes platforms use to step up enforcement may prove to be wildly inaccurate and leave little recourse for those whose content is taken down mistakenly.
“Articles 13 and 11 are poorly thought-through, poorly drafted, unworkable — and dangerous,” Doctorow wrote. “The collateral damage they will impose on every realm of public life can’t be overstated. The internet, after all, is inextricably bound up in the daily lives of hundreds of millions of Europeans, and an entire constellation of sites and services will be adversely affected by Article 13. Europe can’t afford to place education, employment, family life, creativity, entertainment, business, protest, politics, and a thousand other activities at the mercy of unaccountable algorithmic filters.”
By the same measure, proponents argue that the current system — under which platforms are inundated with takedown requests for copyright violations — is unworkable. Earlier this week, Paul McCartney wrote a letter to the European Parliament in support of the new rules.
“We need an internet that is fair and sustainable for all,” McCartney wrote. “But today some user upload content platforms refuse to compensate artists and all music creators fairly for their work, while they exploit it for their own profit. The value gap is that gulf between the value these platforms derive from music and the value they pay creators.”
The bill is scheduled to come up for a vote sometime in the early afternoon (CES). The European Parliament currently appears divided over the proposal. While another committee voted to approve the bill, opponents used some parliamentary moves to force a vote of the whole parliament today.
Such divisions have left the outcome too close to call, but expect the pressure from both sides to continue — no matter the result of today’s vote.