The European Union has taken the first step in passing new copyright legislation that critics say will tear the internet apart.
This morning, the EU’s Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) voted in favor of the legislation, called the Copyright Directive. Although most of the Directive simply updates technical language for copyright law in the age of the internet, it includes two highly controversial provisions. These are Article 11, a “link tax” which would force online platforms like Facebook and Google to buy licenses from media companies before linking to their stories; and Article 13, an “upload filter” which would require that everything uploaded online in the EU is checked for copyright infringement. (Think of it like YouTube’s Content ID system but for the whole internet.)
“It’s a sad day for the internet … but the fight is not over yet.”
EU lawmakers critical of the legislation say these Articles may have been proposed with good intentions — like protecting copyright owners — but are vaguely worded and ripe for abuse. “The methods to address the issue are catastrophic and will hurt the people they want to protect,” Green MEP Julia Reda told journalists earlier this week. After this morning’s vote, Reda told The Verge: “It’s a sad day for the internet … but the fight is not over yet.”
Both Article 11 and Article 13 were approved by the JURI committee this morning, but won’t become official legislation until passed by the entire European Parliament in a plenary vote. There’s no definite timetable for when such a vote might take place, but it would likely happen some time between December of this year and the first half of 2019.
Joe McNamee, executive director of digital rights association EDRi, told The Verge that although the outcome of the JURI decision this morning was extremely disappointing, there are signs that the growing backlash against the legislation is having a palatable effect.
“I was told that the volume of calls, emails, and texts everyone in the parliament has been getting has led people not in the [JURI] committee to start getting worried,” says McNamee. “This momentum is pushing down the likely majority [in the European Parliament] every day.”
However, it’s not just a plenary vote by the European Parliament that will decide the fate of the Copyright Directive. Currently, the legislation is also set to be debated in what are known as “trilogue negotiations” — closed-door discussions between EU legislators and member states. These are intended to speed the process of adopting new laws, but critics say they are opaque and un-democratic. Whether or not the Copyright Directive will be subject to such negotiations is undecided (the JURI committee voted this morning that it should be, but MEPs have a chance to object next month). If the trilogues do go ahead it increases the chances that Articles 11 and 13 will become law. “[The legislation] is much less amenable to being rejected after this process,” says McNamee.
If the legislation is passed in its current form it would have a devastating effect. Article 13, for example, would require the creation of an automatic filter for all online content uploaded in the EU, checking it against a database of copyright licenses. The system would be costly to create, impossible to keep up-to-date, and easily gamed by copyright trolls. And, as experts including Tim Berners-Lee and Jimmy Wales have warned, it would turn the internet into a “tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users.”
That the Copyright Directive has passed its first legislative hurdle without amendment is obviously disheartening. But, says McNamee, there’s every indication that EU lawmakers can be persuaded to vote against the law — especially as they face re-election to the European Parliament in May next year.
“We’ve overturned bad policy in the run up to elections before,” says McNamee, referencing 2012’s rejected ACTA legislation, which also tried to enforce copyright infringement online with vaguely-worded laws. “People might feel discouraged, but their views are being heard and reacted to,” he says. “JURI is not the parliament.”