Critics of the proposed EU directive on copyright warn that it could censor internet users
Ahead of a major vote on EU copyright law, more than 70 leading technology figures have penned a joint letter condemning the Article 13 provision in the potential legislation – warning it could break the internet as we know it.
Among the signatories is the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, and internet pioneer Vint Cerf. Together with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and a gamut of other experts, they warn Article 13 “takes 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”.
The letter highlights the cost of putting automatic filtering technologies in place to fulfill the new copyright rules, which they argue will hinder European startups and SMEs from competing with US firms.
They draw particular attention to the effect of Article 13 on internet users, who would face a barrier to uploading and remixing everything from music and videos to computer code.
“We support the consideration of measures that would improve the ability for creators to receive fair remuneration for the use of their works online,” the letter reads.
“But we cannot support Article 13, which would mandate Internet platforms to embed an automated infrastructure for monitoring and censorship deep into their networks.
“For the sake of the internet’s future, we urge you to vote for the deletion of this proposal.”
MEPs will vote on the proposed copyright directive on 20-21 June. Read on for more information on what Article 13 is, and what it could mean for the internet.
New rules on copyright in Europe
The EU has proposed a new directive on copyright, encompassing a number of sections that have met with stringent criticism from policy experts and digital rights groups, who’ve decried the potential legislation as a mask for censorship – and an end to memes in Europe.
At the heart of this ire is Article 13, a section of the proposed directive that centres on the use of protected content by “information society service providers” (ISSPs), which store and give access to material uploaded by users.
On the surface, it’s a move by the EU to address the disparity in revenues generated by rightsholders of protected content and the online platforms that host the content. Exactly how it attempts to solve this, however, has proven highly controversial.
At the start of June, 100 MEPs sent an open letter in opposition of the plans. This was preceded by a letter from Liberties and European Digital Rights (EDRi).
What is Article 13?
Article 13 of the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on copyright in the Digital Single Market, to give it its full name, is an attempt to reshape copyright law for the internet age. It’s based around the relationship between copyright holders and online platforms, compelling the latter to enforce tighter regulation over protected content.
According to the Article, those platform providers should (deep breath) “take measures to ensure the functioning of agreements concluded with rightholders for the use of their works or other subject-matter or to prevent the availability on their services of works or other subject-matter identified by rightholders through the cooperation with the service providers.”
Those measures should be “appropriate and proportionate”, and the platforms should provide rightsholders with “adequate reporting on the recognition and use of the works and other subject-matter”.
Why is Article 13 controversial?
Critics of the proposed directive claim that Article 13 violates the fundamental rights of internet users, contradicts rules previously established by the EU’s E-Commerce Directive, and misunderstands the way people engage with material on the internet.
Memes, remixes and other types of user-generated content would all be put at risk, they claim, as these could technically be seen as breaches of copyright.
Public domain organisation, the COMMUNIA International Association, says the EU’s measures “stem from an unbalanced vision of copyright as an issue between rightsholders and infringers”, and that the proposal “chooses to ignore limitations and exceptions to copyright, fundamental freedoms, and existing users’ practices”.
The Article stipulates that platforms should “prevent the availability” of protected works, suggesting these ISSPs will need to adopt technology that can recognise and filter work created by someone other than the person uploading it.
This could include fragments of music, pictures and videos. If you’ve ever been on the internet, you’ll know that this ‘remix’ culture is a key part of how online communities function. The worry is that Article 13 will hinder this, and create a type of censorship that ignores nuances in how content can be adopted, quoted or parodied.
Who is objecting to Article 13?
According to the copyright initiative Copybuzz, this could also massively obstruct digital startups in the EU: “Even if they are not required to implement an online censorship system immediately, new companies will have the threat of mandatory upload filters hanging over them as they grow.
“Why would startups choose to operate under these terms in the EU when they can avoid the problem by setting up a company in jurisdictions with laws better-suited to the digital age? Similarly, why would venture capitalists risk investing in new EU companies, which will be hamstrung by a requirement to filter everything once they grow beyond a certain size?”
There are also concerns Article 13 contradicts the EU’s E-Commerce Directive, which takes a different approach towards ISSPs’ liability for hosting services that store information provided by users.
The Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition has previously warned that: “Some requirements contained in Article 13 can enable abusive behaviour, thereby threatening freedom of expression and information”. Last October, 56 leading academics published a set of recommendations on the proposed directive, including claims that Article 13 is “incompatible with the guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms and the obligation to strike a fair balance between all rights and freedoms involved”.
In the open letter by Liberties and EDRi, published back in October, the campaigners wrote: “Article 13 of the proposal on Copyright in the Digital Single Market include obligations on internet companies that would be impossible to respect without the imposition of excessive restrictions on citizens’ fundamental rights.” It states that by going ahead with Article 13, and filtering content in the ways that have been proposed, would violate the freedom of expression set out in Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The open letter claims that Article 13 will mean content is filtered “excessively” and if content is deleted, it will limit a web user’s ability to not only share information, but to receive information. This could damage the spread of information and lead to censorship. The open letter calls for Article 13 to be deleted.
What is the next step for Article 13?
The proposed directive on copyright continues to be argued over, with a vote in the European Parliament on the potential legislation set for 20-21 June. A campaign has been established by Copyright 4 Creativity to advocate against Article 13, which argues that the changes could “destroy the internet as we know it”, and encourages users to write to their MEP ahead of the vote.
A final note in terms of the UK is the uncertainty of what Brexit will mean for the directive. The directive is intended to act on copyright in the digital single market, so presumably any impact on the UK would hinge on the country’s relationship with that entity. In a nutshell, it’s too soon to tell and will rely on the larger outcomes of the Brexit negotiations.
What can I do to stop Article 13?
If you want to join the campaign against Article 13, there is a couple of things you can do. For starters, you can contact members of the European Parliament using Openmedia’s campaign page. You can click the share buttons at the top of this article to make friends, family and followers aware of the impact of Article 13.
This Article 13 guide breaks down the legislation, paragraph by paragraph, and shows both the directive’s plans alongside what that means and how that could be misconstrued and affect the everyday web user.
Lead image credit: Thomas McMullan