E.U. Passes Censorship-Inducing Online Copyright Regulations

Online platforms will be subjected to a costly, easily-abused system that will likely pull down legal content.


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Despite many, many warnings from technology companies and scholars that they were going to wreck the internet, European Union lawmakers have passed a host of new regulations greatly expanding online copyright enforcement demands.

Last week the European Parliament approved a heavily amended version of the European Copyright Directive by a vote of 438 to 226. Tech companies and digital activists have been warning all summer that this will demolish online sharing in order to serve the financial interests of entertainment and media companies.

Two parts of the bill, Articles 11 and 13, have drawn the most fire. Article 11 has been derisively described as a "link tax." It would give media outlets the power to demand licenses (and therefore charge fees) for sharing even small snippets of content from news stories, even just preview images or a couple of sentences. Scholars have warned that this could have a devastating effect on information sharing in education and science, and on sites like Wikipedia. This section has been amended to allow for hyperlinks to other pages, but Cory Doctorow notes that the law is still vague about what constitutes a link. In Germany and Spain, which passed similar laws, simply linking to news stories was forbidden without paying the licensing fee. (The laws also completely failed to help media outlets make money. Indeed, they lost even more readers)

But most of the attention is on Article 13, which forces online platforms to create an automated database-centered system of content filtering to try to block copyrighted content from being uploaded to the internet. Many countries (including the United States) have laws that can be used to compel online platforms to take down copyrighted content. This is different. Article 13 demands that platforms must implement technology that prevents copyrighted material from being uploaded in the first place.

To say this is a potential censorship nightmare is to overlook the censorship nightmare we're already in online. Also highlighted by Doctorow was the very telling experience of a German music professor who attempted to upload recordings of classical music to YouTube. These performances are now in the public domain, but the professor discovered that they were getting tripped up by YouTube's automated ContentID system and immediately getting taken down because they allegedly matched copyright-protected works.

The professor had to appeal each and every takedown. The appeals were accepted and his videos were reposted. But they never should have been taken down in the first place.

YouTube is owned by Google. This is not some cheap filter like you have at the local library to stop people from looking at porn: The ContentID system cost $60 million to build. And neither side is happy with it, claiming that it's either not catching enough copyrighted materials or, as in our professor's case, blocking content that it should not.

Article 13 is going to require pretty much every major site to follow in YouTube's footsteps, even though the video giant can't get it right. We're not just talking about Facebook and Twitter here. Even dating sites are going to have check the images you upload of yourself against a database. Even Etsy is going to have to make sure those are actually your craft products you're trying to sell.

It's not just the major movie studios and the record industry who will be able to throw works into this database and claim ownership. Anybody will be able to. Doctorow notes the enormous potential for abuse and censorship:

But under Article 13, everyone gets to play wholesale censor, and every service has to obey their demands: just sign up for a "rightsholder" account on a platform and start telling it what may and may not be posted. Article 13 has no teeth for stopping this from happening: and in any event, if you get kicked off the service, you can just pop up under a new identity and start again.

We already know that politicians and government representatives have been abusing copyright enforcement systems to take down online criticism. Businesses and companies abuse the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to try to censor videos criticizing their products.

Fortunately, there are still more negotiations to go, and another vote by the European Parliament in 2019. Maybe that will give lawmakers the opportunity to actually take a look at the bill they passed. As Quartz has noted, somebody snuck in an amendment that appears to block people from filming sports events and using the footage for their own purposes. It turns out the parliament member responsible for crafting the legislation in the first place didn't even know it was there.