Members of the European Parliament voted Wednesday to approve a sweeping overhaul of the EU’s copyright laws that includes two controversial articles that threaten to hand more power to the richest tech companies and generally break the internet.
Overall, MEPs voted in favor of the EU Copyright Directive with a strong majority of 438 to 226. But the process isn’t over. There are still more parliamentary procedures to go through, and individual countries will eventually have to decide how they intend to implement the rules. That’s part of the reason that it’s so difficult to raise public awareness on this issue.
Momentum to oppose the legislation built up earlier this summer, culminating with Parliament deciding to open it up for amendments in July. Many people may have thought the worst was over. It wasn’t—but make no mistake, today’s vote in favor of the directive was extremely consequential.
The biggest issue with this legislation has been Articles 11 and 13. These two provisions have come to be known as the “link tax” and “upload filter” requirements, respectively.
In brief, the link tax is intended to take power back from giant platforms like Google and Facebook by requiring them to pay news outlets for the privilege of linking or quoting articles. But critics say this will mostly harm smaller websites that can’t afford to pay the tax, and the tech giants will easily pay up or just decide not link to news. The latter outcome has already happened when this was tried in Spain. On top of inhibiting the spread of news, the link tax could also make it all but impossible for Wikipedia and other non-profit educational sources to do their work because of their reliance on links, quotes, and citation.
The upload filter section of the legislation demands that all platforms aside from “small/micro enterprises” use a content ID system of some sort to prevent any copyrighted works from being uploaded. Sites will face all copyright liabilities in the event that something makes it past the filter. Because even the best filtering systems, like YouTube’s, are still horrible, critics say that the inevitable outcome is that over-filtering will be the default mode of operation. Remixing, meme-making, sharing of works in the public domain, and other fair use practices would likely all fall victim to platforms that would rather play it safe, just say no to flagged content, and avoid legal battles. Copyright trolls will likely be able to fraudulently claim ownership of intellectual property with little recourse for their victims.
We’ve gone further in-depth on all of the implications of the copyright directive, but the fact is, it’s full of vagaries and blind spots that make it impossible to say just how it will shake out. Joe McNamee, executive director of digital rights association EDRi, recently told The Verge, “The system is so complicated that last Friday the [European Parliament] legal affairs committee tweeted an incorrect assessment of what’s happening. If they don’t understand the rules, what hope the rest of us?” As we come closer to living parallel lives online and IRL, such sweeping legislation is dangerous to play with.