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The European Parliament has finally done it: approved controversial copyright reforms that could have significant repercussions for the internet in Europe.

The set of copyright rules known as the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market — the EU Copyright Directive — has been the subject of debate for several years.

While it is uncontroversial in many regards, two facets of the directive have caused the internet to freak out. Article 11, which has been dubbed the “link tax,” stipulates that websites pay publishers a fee if they display excerpts of copyrighted content — or even link to it. This could obviously have major ramifications for services such as Google News. Then there is Article 13, dubbed the “upload filter,” which would effectively make digital platforms legally liable for any copyright infringements on their platform. Some fear that it would stop people from being able to share content — even GIF-infused memes — on social networks.

In July of last year, the European Parliament actually voted 318-278 against these copyright reforms, but only in their existing form. In September, the EU Parliament voted to pass the directive, with some minor adjustments, but this was a negotiating position that proceeded a “trilogue” process of further negotiations between the EU Council and the Commission. This brings us to today, and the EU Parliament’s overwhelming 348 to 274 vote in favor of the new directive.

The players

Needless to say, this development impacts two broad groups: platforms such as Google and Facebook, and content creators, which range from newspapers to musicians. Naturally, it is the latter group that will be happiest about the vote. Indeed, many creators have been campaigning for legislation that would make platforms responsible for copyright-infringing content uploaded to their services.

“This is about creating a fair and functioning market for creative works of all kinds on the internet,” said Robert Ashcroft, CEO of U.K.-based royalties collection body PRS for Music, in the wake of today’s vote. “It’s about making sure that ordinary people can upload videos and music to platforms like YouTube without being held liable for copyright — that responsibility will henceforth be transferred to the platforms. This is about modernizing the internet, and it’s a massive step forward for consumers and creators alike.”

Google, which has had a rough time in Europe in recent years, closed its Google News product in Spain five years ago after a local law was introduced requiring aggregators (such as Google) to pay publishers just for linking to their content. Now that a similar law is set to be rolled out across the entire European Union, services such as Google News could start to disappear in the region, and there are question marks over YouTube’s position as a platform that allows anyone to upload content.

Google — which lobbied heavily against these changes — hasn’t yet stated what it will do, though it did refer to “legal uncertainty” the ruling may cause.

“The Copyright Directive is improved, but will still lead to legal uncertainty and will hurt Europe’s creative and digital economies,” a Google spokesperson said. “The details matter, and we look forward to working with policy makers, publishers, creators, and rights holders as EU member states move to implement these new rules.”

Next steps

In terms of what happens next, well, there isn’t a great deal that can stop this directive from being rolled out in the coming years. Each EU country will have to write the directive into their own national laws, with a deadline set for 2021. Some countries may transpose the directive more quickly than others, depending on how strongly they support the new rules.

We could still see some legal action challenging the ruling, though it’s not entirely clear on what grounds or who would initiate it. “Unlike the GDPR, which gave existing regulatory bodies the clear power to adjudicate and enforce that law and its ambiguities, it’s unclear who is supposed to impose consistency in the EU between, say, a harsh French regime and a potentially softer German solution, or interpret the Directive’s notoriously incoherent text,” added Danny O’Brien, international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a statement.

“That means it will fall by default to Europe’s judicial system, and the long, slow road to a final decision by the EU’s superior court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ),” he said.

In short, this appears to be the end of the road in terms of blocking the copyright reforms, but anyone who opposes the legislation can take comfort in knowing there will likely be some new twists in the next couple of years. It may not be enough to reverse the directive, but determining what the reform actually means for internet platforms and copyright holders will probably involve many debates — and days in court.

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